Baton Rouge, LA -- The worst of times sometimes brings out the worst in some people. Con artists, price-gougers and quick-buck scammers for instance.
State and federal recovery officials overseeing recovery efforts in the wake of Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili alerted flood survivors in the parishes to be on the lookout for confidence artists posing as reputable contractors and repairpersons.
"Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people try to take advantage of people who are attempting to put their lives back in order," said Art Jones, state coordinating officer. Jones said that scam artists strike when people are most vulnerable, using false promises and bogus business practices to defraud storm victims.
Price gouging is another unsavory practice inflicted on people in distress. Residents are urged to be wary of any price that appears to be high, especially for out-of-the-ordinary expenses such as tree-cutting or debris removal.
"Any outlay of $50 or more deserves double-checking," Jones said. "Don't make hasty decisions. Tell people who come to your door to come back, no matter what pressure they try to exert."
Recovery officials also suggest storm victims:
- Check with the Better Business Bureau of South Central Louisiana (225-346-5222) or your local business trades council to make sure any repair or rebuilding firm has no outstanding consumer complaints filed against it.
- If a scam is suspected call the Louisiana Department of Consumer Services (toll-free: 888-525-9414).
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) urges all Louisiana residents with any knowledge of fraud, waste or abuse involving FEMA contracts, programs or personnel to call the Fraud Hotline at 800-323-8603. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Written alerts, or complaints, can be made to: Office of Inspector General, FEMA, 500 C STREET, S.W, WASHINGTON, DC 20472.
Conducting audits and investigating possible fraudulent activities is standard procedure in all federal disaster operations. The U.S. Department of Justice prosecutes cases that result in criminal charges.
Persons claiming false losses can be charged with a felony and, if convicted, face a maximum five- to 10-year prison term and/or up to $250,000 in fines.
The OIG operates the FEMA Fraud Hotline and leads multi-jurisdictional fraud task forces that can include the Small Business Administration, the FBI and the Army.