FBI leads task force to investigate fraud after Northern California fires

Leslie Garnica searches for belongings in the ashes of her home that was destroyed by fire in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. An onslaught of wildfires across a wide swath of Northern California broke out almost simultaneously then grew exponentially, swallowing up properties from wineries to trailer parks and tearing through both tiny rural towns and urban subdivisions. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

J.D. MORRIS,

The FBI shed more light Tuesday on the steps it is taking to address a range of fraudulent activity in the wake of Northern California’s devastating October wildfires, announcing a group of more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies it has convened to investigate cases related to the disasters.

Public officials previously said an alarming number of duplicate claims were filed by people seeking financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including in Sonoma County, where numerous fire victims reported being unable to sign up for aid at first because someone else already registered using their personal information.

The FBI’s task force was formed to help investigate — and, if needed, prosecute — such cases, as well as other types of fraud that may arise during debris removal and rebuilding, said Prentice Danner, a spokesman in the bureau’s San Francisco division. In a recent FBI public service announcement regarding the fires, the bureau warned of the potential for fraudsters to claim they are soliciting charitable contributions or create fake advertisements for temporary housing or announcements about job opportunities.

“It’s kind of the normal process for any natural disaster,” Danner said. “Every step of the way, you’re met with people trying to make a buck off folks who are otherwise disenfranchised.”

To defend against potential fraud, the FBI advises residents not to respond to unsolicited emails or click on links or attachments in such messages. Residents are also cautioned to be skeptical of people claiming to be officials or nonprofits soliciting donations via email, and advised against sending personal or financial information to people sending unsolicited donation requests online.

Furthermore, residents should be wary of messages offering jobs they didn’t apply for, and they should thoroughly research housing advertisements before sending any money in response to one, the FBI said.

The task force announced Tuesday will focus on the four North Bay counties most affected by the October firestorm: Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake. In addition to the FBI, the group includes representatives from FEMA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. Local agencies include the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department.

A main goal of the task force is to marshal intelligence from other major disasters this year — such as the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico — to spot fraud trends as officials investigate suspicious activities after the Northern California fires, according to the FBI.

FEMA earlier estimated tens of thousands of duplicate aid registrations, including many suspected to be fraudulent, had been submitted nationwide after the disasters. But emergency officials won’t fully understand the extent of the suspicious claims for aid in Northern California until after the Dec. 11 deadline to register for FEMA assistance, an agency spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“It’s definitely more than what we typically have for a disaster,” said Brandi Richard, a FEMA public affairs officer. “That’s why the FBI and these other agencies are involved.”

Through the task force, officials will be able to easily refer reports of disaster-related fraud to the most appropriate authorities and work together toward potential prosecutions, the FBI said.