Authorities warn of looting, scams and fraud cases during post-Florence relief efforts

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
September 19, 2018, 2:21:55 PM EDT

During the aftermath of natural disasters, as many communities join forces to aid in the recovery and relief efforts, there are commonly a select few that choose instead to participate in antisocial behavior, including looting and scams.

It occurred during past major hurricanes like Harvey, Irma and Katrina. Hurricane Florence was no different. WECT-TV reporter Chelsea Donovan and her news photographer captured brazen looters on video as they ransacked a Family Dollar store in Wilmington, North Carolina.

"This community has been through a lot right now, and we feel very strongly that looters are exploiting people that are vulnerable at a time like this,” Wilmington Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham told the media following the incident.

Man breaking into a store - Getty Images

(Photo/stevecoleimages/Getty Images)

Some thieves wore masks while others were much bolder as they casually strolled out carrying trash bags and duffel bags stuffed with stolen merchandise, according to the report.

“Hey guys, you know you’re looting, right? You know you’re stealing?” Donovan asked one of the perpetrators in the video.

“Looting often starts with one or two people who have virtually no moral compass and often have a past history of petty crimes or worse,” explained active police supervisor and law enforcement writer Paul Grattan Jr. “However, the larger picture is more complex, with others following on opportunity and system-beating behavior. Looting is about a bandwagon – a group mentality where integrity and accountability go by the wayside.”

Prior to Hurricane Florence’s arrival in the Carolinas, many boarded-up shops abandoned by evacuees were marked with signs that read “Looters will be shot!” and similar messages warning of the possible consequences of post-hurricane thievery.

However, the call for looters to be “shot on sight” isn’t so much a literal expression as it is a rhetorical expression of outrage by those who’d never take advantage of a disaster or civil disturbance in such a way, Grattan explained.

“Reacting with unjustified force can land the property or business owner in more trouble than the thief,” Grattan said.

Local law enforcement usually will impose overnight curfews, as was done during Harvey in 2017, to help curb looting incidents and other criminal activity.

Oftentimes, it’s difficult to prosecute those involved with looting, according to criminal litigation experts at the New York City-based Blanch Law Firm. They explained that both the nature of damage inflicted by the disaster itself can be difficult to distinguish from that of looting.

“Additionally, jurisdictions define looting differently, with many declining to characterize it as simple theft,” experts wrote.

Post-hurricane scammers

Opportunities for scams and fraud are also abundant during times of disaster, when people struggling to piece their lives back together and those eager to help are most vulnerable.

“After Katrina, the federal government prosecuted more than 1,000 cases related to fraud,” said Joshua Rogala, a criminal defense attorney based in Winnipeg, Canada.

“The greatest crime that comes from these kinds of situations are scammers who pose as charities in order to steal money that would otherwise be [used] to help victims,” Rogala told AccuWeather.

Well-organized criminals begin registering online domains for scamming websites as soon as the National Weather Service releases names for the coming year’s storms, he explained.

“These domain names give an appearance of authority, which is the scammers’ goal,” he said, adding that websites like help donors find legitimate charities.

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The Internal Revenue Service recently warned taxpayers to be wary of post-Florence scammers, noting that phony charities will try to steal money or financial details through calls and emails in addition to setting up bogus websites.

Insurance fraud is also common, Rogala said. “If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from your insurance company asking for money and threatening that if you don’t pay, your coverage will be canceled, it’s probably a scammer,” he said.

When in doubt, contact the insurance company directly or speak with an agent in person at one of their branches, Rogala recommended.

“If something feels amiss, it probably is, and one of the best ways to avoid a scam is not to agree to anything immediately,” Grattan said, as many fraudsters use urgency as a tactic.

A number of organizations provide resources for preventing fraud during disasters, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), AARP and the Federal Trade Commissioner.

“If you suspect fraud, report it,” said Grattan. “You may help someone else from being scammed.”

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