Gouging concerns get proactive approach from county and feds

Gouging concerns get proactive approach from county and feds

Gas for $10 a gallon, water for $99 a case, phantom homes for lease or sale, sheetrock installed for approximately the price of a new kidney. Jefferson County District Attorney Bob Wortham says he’s heard it all. What he hasn’t heard, however, are that any police reports are being filed with his office charging suspects with those allegations – at least not yet.

There are, Wortham went on to say, plenty of cases under investigation at the local police stations complaining of price gouging, IRS and finance scams, rental scams and the like, targeting victims of Tropical Storm/Hurricane Harvey, and no community has been spared from unscrupulous activity by known and unknown actors trying to scam storm victims in the disaster’s aftermath.

“Nothing has been forwarded to us yet,” DA Wortham said, “but we hear that all the local law enforcement agencies are working on cases like these.”

Wortham’s office, with only a couple of investigators on staff, has been assisting the police departments whenever possible.

“There are some cases currently under investigation that we either have the evidence on or we can get the evidence on,” Wortham said.

Then, it will still be essential for the local law enforcement agency to present the case for prosecution. Wortham reiterated time and time again the crucial step of reporting the crime itself to the police department and not just to him – or a neighbor, or a friend, or on social media.

“I hear a lot more claims like this with word-of-mouth than I do in the office,” Wortham said. The seasoned lawman doesn’t think the reports he hears about unofficially are any less true, just that victims are many times hesitant to file official reports for various reasons. The chief reason for not reporting being victims of price gouging, scams, and fraud, though, he believes, is pride.

According to Wortham, some victims are “too embarrassed” to come forward.

“It’s OK to make a mistake,” he said. “Don’t be too embarrassed to admit you made a mistake. Report the people who are gouging you. You are a victim of their greed.

Wortham said he has taken a proactive approach to tackling the problem, sponsoring public service announcements on TV and radio, standing ready for any chance to warn of scams and gouging in Harvey’s wake.

“We’re doing everything in our power,” Wortham said. “We just need the victims to come forward.

“We’re open for business here, and we want to help the public.”

County Commissioner Michael “Shane” Sinegal said he’s received reports from citizens, too, about price gouging, but couldn’t convince the victims to file with the local police station.

“I get a report that this contractor is charging $75 per sheet,” for sheetrock installation, Sinegal said. A carpenter by trade, the commissioner said even on the high end of the spectrum, sheetrock shouldn’t cost $20 a sheet. “I know there is a little mark-up now, but …”

At some point, a profit mark-up is predatory, he said.

“There’s a lot of people desperate right now,” he said. Sinegal continued on to say that desperation can sometimes lead to bad decisions, such as paying too much for products and services. “You can’t be desperate. Be patient.”

In Port Arthur, uncertainty of what the future may hold insofar as requirements for rebuilding have caused desperate actions to combat desperate times.

“Port Arthur let it go out that people were going to have to elevate,” Sinegal said of early reports on recovery requirements in the heavily damaged city. “They shouldn’t have let that go – at least not until FEMA came and did their inspections. It’s creating mass panic for no reason.

“They had people planning to relocate. A lot of these people are elderly and they were panicking, stressing about it.”

In the confusion surrounding recovery efforts, scammers have come in to take advantage of those with their guards down.

“I haven’t heard of any from the local stores. I’ve been watching them, too. It’s mostly out-of-town contractors,” Sinegal said. “A lot of new ones have jumped up.”

Sinegal recommends anyone shopping around for home repair contractors to check out the business’ credentials in advance.

“Check them out with the BBB,” at bbb.org, he said, “or call me (409-983-8300) and I’ll check them out for you.”

The commissioner has assisted several citizens in looking over contract estimates to make sure they’re getting a fair deal.

“I’ll even go by their homes and sit down with them when they negotiate their price,” he said, especially for scammers’ usual target – the elderly and/or disabled.

For the approximate 80 percent of homes flooded in Port Arthur, he said, “it’s going to take some time to get contractors,” and he estimates it will be next year before some residents are back in their homes. And that’s a lot of time for scammers to make their way to victims’ front doors.

Immediately after Harvey’s impact, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office began receiving complaints of price gouging and scams targeting storm victims.

“It’s unconscionable that any business would take advantage of Texans at their most vulnerable – those who are displaced from their homes, have limited resources, and are in desperate need of fuel, shelter and the basic necessities of life,” Paxton said, his office later issuing word that roughly 700 reports of such crimes were forthcoming in the days following the storm’s landfall. “Texas has tough price gouging laws, and my office will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute cases arising from Hurricane Harvey.”

Aside from reporting instances of price gouging and scams targeting Harvey victims to the local police, victims can also report allegations of vendors overpricing necessities such as drinking water, food, clothing, and fuel during a declared disaster to the attorney general’s Consumer Protection Hotline at (800) 621-0508.

And last week, the federal authorities in Southeast Texas committed to investigating and prosecuting crimes targeting Harvey victims as well.

According to Acting United States Attorney Brit Featherston, a Disaster Fraud Task Force comprised of local, state and federal agents will combine resources to combat Hurricane Harvey related fraud activity. Prior to his announcement, Featherston reports, the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) had already received over 400 complaints of suspected fraudulent activity including price gouging and looting since Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck the Gulf Coast in August and September.

“Although the Eastern District of Texas has witnessed acts of heroism, compassion and generosity from its citizens and from across the nation, there are individuals and organizations that will use these tragic events to take advantage of those in need,” the U.S Attorney reported.

Members of the public who suspect fraud involving disaster relief efforts, or believe they have been the victim of fraud from a person or organization soliciting relief funds on behalf of disaster victims, should contact the National Disaster Fraud Hotline toll free at (866) 720-5721, or e-mail correspondence to disaster [at] leo [dot] gov.

 

“It always happens,” Commissioner Sinegal said of scammers coming in after any major disaster. “I’m just glad it’s not local businesses trying to take advantage. I feel good about that. Still, these others have got to go.”

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