SONOMA, Calif. — Scammers have filed thousands of fraudulent claims for disaster relief using breached private information of California residents in areas stricken by wildfires, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It's one more worry for homeowners trying to recover from the fires that have so far killed 43 people, burned 245,000 acres, and destroyed 8,900 structures since they broke out in Northern California on October 8.
FEMA says the large number of fraudulently filed claims include breached names, social security numbers, addresses, and dates of birth of residents in fire-affected areas. Claims for FEMA assistance are worth up to $34,000 in federal disaster grants, and filing fraudulently is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Residents in hard-hit Sonoma County are among the victims of the suspected fraud, which FEMA Region 9 External Affairs Director David Passey characterized as "unique" in scale. Some residents in the area's fire disaster area were subsequently visited or left notices by FEMA inspectors — their first indication that their personal information had been used. Some homeowners were bewildered when they found letters from FEMA attached to their property without having filed a claim.
FEMA has dispatched more than 50 contracted inspectors to determine damage to personal property in the areas of California affected by wildfires. At this time, there is no evidence that FEMA has paid out funds to fraudulent applicants, according to Passey.
But, there are so many fraudulent claims, even the inspectors contracted by FEMA are frustrated by the time and money spent visiting the homes of residents who never filed a claim.
"I am quite sure almost all of them were fraudulent, but I still have to the leave the note," said one inspector who asked to remain anonymous because he feared he could lose his job for speaking to the media. He estimated that only 5 percent of the notices he distributed in the last week were to people who had actually applied for help from FEMA.
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"I left a lot of notes on a lot of gates. Quite often they were homes that were up for sale. I still have to go in and make sure there is not someone there in FEMA need," he told NBC News.
FEMA says the agency is working with law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to investigate the several thousand registrations for relief they believe are fraudulent.
"We don't have any reason to believe that our [FEMA] database has been breached," Passey said in a phone interview, pointing to recent large-scale hacks like the Equifax breach as a possible culprit.
"Unfortunately, disasters often attract scam artists, identity thieves, and other criminals. In every disaster, as we have seen in hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria — and the California wildfires — it is important to provide information to the public on how to guard against fraud and report suspicious activity," Passey wrote in an email to NBC News.
A legitimate inspector contracted to work with FEMA will have an identification card, and FEMA encourages residents of disaster zones to request seeing this proof before allowing access to their property. Inspectors will also never charge a fee.
In previous disasters, impostors claiming to be FEMA-contracted have also defrauded homeowners. There is no evidence that these "fake" inspectors are currently operating in the California wildfire areas.
Residents of disaster areas who received a notice or visit from an inspector but did not register for assistance are urged to call FEMA at 800-621-3362 to cancel the fraudulent registration and report it to the DHS Inspector General.
With this helpline being used to process registration for millions of Americans impacted by other disasters, wait times were exceeding 45 minutes. Those who suspect they are at risk can also email the National Center for Disaster Fraud at email@example.com to make a report.