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During a time which some viewed as a chance to assist those afflicted by Harvey and Irma’s devastating blows, criminals spotted a perfect opportunity to take advantage of a vulnerable situation.
Reports of Florida Power & Light customers being held at gunpoint by thieves disguised as utility workers; impostors impersonating Homeland Security Investigations special agents while urging Houston residents to evacuate so they can burglarize abandoned homes; and the looting of vacated businesses show that crime doesn’t take a break in the wake of a disaster.
“The fact that you’ve lost your home and the ability to utilize your home and now people are taking your most precious items that have a great deal of monetary and sentimental value, that doubly impacts these individuals who have suffered as a result of natural disasters,” said prosecutor and criminal defense attorney Robert Honecker.
During and after Harvey, Houston officials took a stand against looting by promising harsher punishments. Texas law states that certain crimes, like home burglaries, carry heftier sentences if committed in disaster-declared areas.
“We’re not a city that's going to tolerate people victimizing people that are at the lowest point in their life," Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said at a news conference.
In South Florida, footage of brazen looters stealing from businesses closed due to the storm circulated social media and news outlets in Irma’s aftermath.
A Florida man was arrested for attempting to nab one of the Florida Department of Transportation’s generators that helped to power traffic lights after the storm.
It’s not always everyday criminals that participate in illegal activity during these types of events, according to former CIA and Los Angeles Police Department officer Henderson Cooper.
“You have those people who are opportunists, who will take advantage of this new opportunity,” Cooper said. “[It’s] not necessarily representative of who they are on a daily basis, but for whatever reason, they choose to do so during those times.”
Desperation and the need for essential supplies might also drive some people to steal from businesses or other families after a storm, Cooper said.
Lack of police patrol due to strengthening hurricane-force winds and dangerous conditions following the most severe parts of the storms only served as prime opportunities for some criminals to strike.
“Criminals know you’re likely not going to be there [if you’ve evacuated] and there is likely not going to be someone there patrolling,” Cooper said. “So, they have the advantage of the absence of victims, witnesses, first responders and law enforcement.”
“They can do what they want," he said. "They have all the time in the world."
There are some steps people can take to minimize their chances of becoming victims.
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“When someone approaches you to inspect your properties, make sure that they have the proper credentials and that you have the ability to identify who they are,” Honecker said.
Prior to evacuating, effectively locking up homes and bringing along items of sentimental and monetary value are also recommended. Honecker also advised alerting the authorities that the home will be vacant.
“Although police resources are going to be stretched during these types of disasters, [people should] contact the authorities and let them know they have evacuated and abandoned their properties and place them on notice that they would like them to do the best they can to assure that these properties will not be victimized by individuals who want to commit crimes,” Honecker said.
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