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Henderson: Identity theft rides Irma’s ill winds

By Joe Henderson, Times Correspondent
The Tampa Bay area suffered a glancing blow from Hurricane Irma in September. But some took advantage of that. [Associated Press]

I opened my front door a few days ago and was met by guy who said he was an inspector from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA, for short.

He flashed a laminated photo badge and said he was an independent contractor from Virginia, working on repair claims from Hurricane Irma. He said he was here to check on a claim my wife filed for damages to our home.

One problem: We didn’t file a claim. The worst damage we had from Irma was some minor yard debris.

But there it was, a piece of paper with my wife’s name, our address, and other bits of information. None of that came from us. The man didn’t seem surprised and said there was a lot of hurricane-related fraud. He said we could clear up the matter quickly if my wife would call him when she got home from work.

He couldn’t take my word for it because Elaine’s name was used in the original file, so she had to be the one to say it was fake claim. For cynics, I should note that my wife is a church-going, volunteering credit to the community who puts just everyone ahead of herself.

I was a little bemused at that point, thinking someone would have to be 10 shades of dumb to seek money to fix a house that wasn’t damaged. Wouldn’t these people know an inspection would be part of the process, and wouldn’t trouble come from that?

But it got stranger. A letter from FEMA came in that afternoon’s mail. Included was a copy of the claim we didn’t file. It had my wife’s name, our address, the last four digits of her Social Security number (gulp), and a description of our alleged plight.

The form said we were claiming flood damage, which would be interesting because our neighborhood doesn’t flood. It said we were living in a hotel, pending repairs. It listed an old land line phone that we had, except the last digit of the number was wrong.

Elaine called FEMA directly instead of the guy who knocked on our door. After waiting about 45 minutes, she reached an agent who took her information and said they would put a stop order on the case.

They also said we will be in the dark (so to speak) about future developments. They are too overwhelmed to keep us updated. They wouldn’t even advise us whether to call the guy who knocked at our door. That was up to us.

FEMA did provide some online tips for dealing with situations like this. The agency does use contracted inspectors, and they will be equipped with a photo ID badge. They won’t ask for money for anything.

An agency shirt or jacket is not proof that the person is from FEMA. If you have a problem, call FEMA or Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office.

None of this helps with the bigger issue of identity theft. I imagine we’ll be playing whack-a-mole with identity crooks for a long time, although we took some prudent steps like freezing our credit accounts a few weeks ago after the Equifax security breach.

There are bad people out there and agencies that are supposed to have our back are stretched far too thin to stop them all. The moral of this story can be summed up in one word.