By Angela Greenwood

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — A warning about fraud in the fire zone—FEMA officials say it appears identity thieves are stealing money meant for homeowners who lost everything.

It’s one more worry for victims trying to recover from the Wine Country wildfires. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it’s seen a big spike in fraudulent claims for disaster money.

It is the worst firestorm in California history. Now, the Wine Country wildfires are breaking another record thanks to an unprecedented number of fraudulent FEMA claims.

Paul Corrah with FEMA said, “Historically, we see about 1 to 2 percent of our claims that are fraudulent that we catch, but for some reason, we are seeing a big increase in fraudulent claims in this disaster.”

Corrah says FEMA is seeing more than double the fraud cases it saw after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA officials aren’t sure why its happening, but they do know how. In order to file a claim, a person has to confirm their name, social security number and physical address of their burned out home.

“Somehow there’s a breach and identity theft somewhere. They are getting that information and filing a claim,” said Corrah.

The checks can’t be sent to now destroyed homes, so FEMA says the fraudulent claimants pick a different, sometimes random address. Criminals then watch the mailbox and swipe the checks, re-victimizing fire victims.

FEMA won’t say exactly how many claims are fraudulent, as it likely doesn’t know just yet. In Sonoma County alone, the agency has handed out more than $4 million. So, is the agency doing enough to protect those who’ve already lost enough?

Corrah said, “We are changing every day and looking at every process we have – every single step of the way to try and stop it, but we are also trying to give out benefits to fire survivors who need it. So it’s a balance.”

Local and federal law enforcement are already looking into these cases. FEMA officials are also asking fire victims who’ve applied for assistance to give them a call, to double check their own claim statuses.

The number to call is 1-800-621-FEMA (3362)


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