TEXAS (CBS11 I-TEAM) – Reports of fraud are on the rise as Tropical Storm Harvey flood waters are receding.
The Office of the Texas Attorney General told the I-Team it has already received nearly 3,000 complaints since Harvey hit the Gulf Coast on August 25th.
Reports of fraud include price gouging, fake GoFundMe pages, fraudulent Facebook posts, made-up FEMA employment offers and imposters. Investigators say beware of crooks impersonating government and insurance agents.
“There’s no shortage of criminals, ” says Federal Trade Commission Assistant Regional Director Jim Elliott.
Elliott says, in one of the latest attempts, con artists are targeting Texas hunters. The thieves are impersonating the National Rifle Association and soliciting funds.
“Texas is a big hunting state. It’s a second amendment rights state,” says Elliott. “The [criminals] try to get that connection with you, so it becomes a little easier to get your money.”
But the biggest concern right now is a nationwide warning. We all need to be careful where we click! Cyber thieves are buying up domain names hoping to lure you in with key words like “charity”, “help”, “relief”, “donate”, “victims.”
The week Harvey hit, more than 500 Harvey-related domain names were registered according to the Center for Internet Security. It reports thieves are sending “phishing emails” or texts hoping to lure you to the “malicious websites.”
The websites can infect your computer or solicit funds that may not help victims.
In one example, during Hurricane Sandy, the state of New Jersey filed a lawsuit accusing a couple of buying “multiple domain names” before the hurricane ever hit, creating a fund and then funneling more than $13,000 into their own personal account.
To give you an idea of just how lucrative this can be, on places like eBay, the I-Team found domain names- normally one-to-10 dollars, offered for $750 to $2000. An eBay spokesperson tells us this is “against policy” and sellers who “re-list face account suspension.” (statement below)
Domain sites have called the practice of buying up these names sleazy but not illegal.
With Hurricane Irma now looming in the Caribbean, the I-Team has learned buyers are already lapping up related-domain names. Hurricaneirma.com is among the domains no longer available.
“It’s the old story of old wine in new bottles. You just repackage the wine for the event. This time it’s a hurricane, ” says Elliott.
While not all who collect sites or come to your door or call are up to no good, with so many well-known charity options, many law enforcement agencies are posting warnings right now telling you to stick to whom or what you know.
Members of the public are encouraged to contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud to report all types of disaster fraud. The U.S. Department of Justice established the NCDF following Hurricane Katrina when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region. Its mission has expanded to include suspected fraud from any natural or manmade disaster and includes more than 30 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The team includes law enforcement agents who review those reports and make referrals to the appropriate investigative agencies. The NCDF provides de-confliction, coordination and expertise in handling disaster fraud matters and is focused on protecting disaster victims and any funds dedicated to disaster victims.
The Disaster Fraud Hotline is 1.866.720.5721 and is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Members of the public can also send an email or fax information to 225.334.4707.
⇓Links To Report Scams And Consumer Issues⇓
Texas Attorney General Resources
Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Toll-Free Hotline
Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)/Federal Bureau of Investigation
⇓Help Spotting Illegal Activity⇓
⇓Look Up A Charity Before Donating⇓
Statement from eBay: Listings of domain names specific to disasters or human tragedies are against policy. We’ve seen a very limited number of people attempting to sell these domain names, and we’ve issued warnings that these listings are not allowed on the eBay marketplace. Sellers who attempt to re-list these domain names following our removal will face account suspension.