TAMPA — It's a forecast authorities can make with confidence: As soon as hurricanes blow through, the scammers emerge and get to work.
They say they're collecting money for storm victims and keep it. They pretend to be storm victims, sometimes stealing actual victims' identities, to snag recovery money. They pass themselves off as licensed contractors, receive payment and then botch the job or perform no work at all.
Already, the National Center for Disaster Fraud has received more than 400 complaints related to hurricanes Harvey and Irma, officials said Thursday. As they mobilize to investigate and prosecute, law enforcement officials are urging people to stay vigilant.
"The fraudsters aren't waiting," Acting U.S. Attorney Corey R. Amundson of the Middle District of Louisiana, who serves as the fraud center's acting executive director, said Thursday during a conference call with reporters. "They need to know we're coming for them, and the public needs to be informed and protected."
As the complaints come in, U.S. attorneys in Florida and Texas are forming task forces in their offices to investigate and prosecute cases. Among them is Acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow, whose district spans 35 counties including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando.
"Criminals who take advantage of victims of natural disasters and prey upon those when they are most vulnerable need to know the Department of Justice and our office will vigorously investigate and prosecute them," Muldrow aid.
The fraud center was founded as an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast in 2005. Since then, the center has fielded more than 70,000 complaints stemming from 50 natural and man-made disasters.
Complaints are routed to the appropriate federal, state or local agency. Meanwhile, the center works to identify trends and evidence indicating suspects are operating in a number of places. And it works to help the public avoid becoming victims.
So far, most allegations stemming from Harvey and Irma have involved people trying to scam the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Amundson said. Other types of complaints involve bogus charities, suspicious contractors and inspectors and identity theft. The complaints are largely focused in the disaster areas, but also come from places across the country.
A familiar pattern has emerged, Amundson said.
Immediately after a storm, a wave of charity fraud complaints pours in. But the overall spike comes months later, when FEMA and other agencies, such as the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, begin to distribute recovery funds.
To drive the point home, Amundson recalled a six-week public corruption trial related to Katrina that he prosecuted in 2012, seven years after the storm.
"If Katrina's a guide, we can expect to be fighting this issue for the next decade," he said.
In the Middle District, which has an office in Tampa, the disaster fraud task force will be led by Roger Handberg, a criminal division chief who has extensive experience investigating and prosecuting these types of fraud schemes, including cases connected to Katrina, Muldrow said.
Most of the initial calls in Muldrow's district have been related to price-gouging, which Florida Attorney Pam General Pam Bondi also is pursuing. But the volume and diversity of complaints will surely increase, Muldrow said.
"We expect this is going to be a lengthy process and we're committed to this for the long haul.
The National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline is (866) 720-5721.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.