Hurricane Harvey put a huge dent in my hometown, with close to 200 businesses and 20% of the homes here flooded, some up past their rooflines. It’s been a tough couple of months. Our home was spared but if the flood waters had continued to rise for just a few more hours, we wouldn’t have been so lucky.
Piles and piles of “house guts” as I called them quickly lined the streets, and in some cases are still there, waiting to be picked up. Needless to say, the mounds of wet carpet, sheetrock, furniture, clothing, and every type of belonging you could imagine drew flies, rodents, bred mosquitoes, and, unfortunately, attracted a certain group of human predators who focused on bedraggled families as their next victims.
You can see from this photo how many, many people have lived in the weeks, and now months, post-Harvey.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The community here was and continues to be outstanding in their level of support. Our church was one of the leaders in organizing work crews who went into homes and helped shellshocked owners do what had to be done — dismantle the remnants of their secure lives, leaving them with nothing but concrete floors and wall studs. It was backbreaking work, but “Texas Strong” was a reality, every single day.
The worst in human nature came in the form of those who had no shame in taking advantage of my community in every possible way. Looters, of course, arrived to go through homes that had been temporarily abandoned, taking off with what very little the homeowner had salvaged. I now completely understand the sentiment, “Looters will be shot.”
Homeowners, in their rush to gut their homes and start the drying process, piled things in the front yard to sort through later, but soon discovered that ANYTHING left outside was considered fair game. At different hours of the day and into the night, cars prowled these neighborhoods, with human vultures looking for anything with potential value.
Along with piles of house guts, people had no choice but to put out piles of soggy paperwork, mail, and files of family and financial records. Incredibly, the dregs of society soon found those and began putting them to use, creating fake identities, complete with drivers licenses, checks, and credit cards. In some cases it was the work crews who found the documents and sold them to other criminals. Here’s an example of one identity thief who was caught. I’ve heard of many instances of mail being stolen out of mailboxes once mail delivery resumed. With so many homeowners unable to stay in their homes and check their mail in a timely manner, it was there for the taking.
Speaking of work crews, as you can probably imagine, our town soon attracted construction workers and contractors of all kinds who took advantage of flood victims in every possible way, from demanding large deposits and then never doing the job to doing shoddy work that had to be re-done by actual professionals. Anti-mold companies sold products and services that weren’t necessary, and one experienced construction professional sent this plea on a Facebook page,
As you look for your homes and properties to be repaired, PLEASE don’t tell contractors, bidders, and handyman you’ve just received your insurance check unless you absolutely need to. And please don’t tell them how much it was. I’ve seen several areas become devastated and people will be looking to get the most money from you. Telling them you received your check and how much it was, tells them just how much to bid the job for! Whether or not the work is worth that amount. People unfortunately, are not as honest these days. Do not be afraid to ask to see a portfolio of pictures of their work, request references, and by all means… ask questions! Keep all quotes to yourself, unless using it to negotiate a lower price. This will ensure your quotes and estimates are truthful and honest. Don’t be afraid to get multiple quotes either. This will make the money hungry bids stand out. And last but not least… cheapest isn’t always the best. Some people will cut corners to cut costs.
On Facebook pages and in community forums, I’ve seen multiple examples of scammers, hired by desperate people but, in the end, leaving them even more desperate, betrayed, and a lot poorer.
My wife very actively kept track of people in need and worked to connect them with donations, but in a few cases, she saw that some individuals whose homes had NOT been flooded, were joining in with requests for everything from furniture to appliances, clothing, you name it. One woman posted a variety of sob stories on different Facebook pages, until the community began to catch on. Many of us began requesting more information from those posting needs, like asking for an address so we could make sure there was an actual need, their home had actually flooded, and they weren’t just someone looking for a handout, leaving less for the true flood victims.
And then there were those who used the telephone and a computer to try and defraud:
I just received a call from someone saying they were with FEMA and that I was being offered $9k. They wanted my banking info. They could not tell my name or address. They hung up when I asked if they knew my name. It was from a 202 (DC) number. Don’t give banking info over the phone. FEMA should already have it if you applied for relief.
Here’s another example of the lengths criminals go to in order to defraud victims:
There are individuals out there that are using addresses of homes that have been vacant due to flooding for purposes of obtaining governmental services (i.e. Unemployment Benefits and/or Government Assistance). How can you tell? When you receive mail addressed to strangers with your address and a lot # after the street address. Watch out for this as it has happened to me from about 4 strangers. I contacted the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) and reported them. I then returned the mail to the Post Office marked RETURN TO SENDER – DOES NOT LIVE HERE. This could stem from strangers driving the neighborhood to Contractors working in the neighborhood.
We asked our community about other crimes they had experienced during this horrific flood, and here’s just a sampling:
- (People are) selling flooded cars or other items with out disclosing the damage.
- My friend got her purse stolen at Lowe’s. The police told her a lot of people have come into town to steal. Because everyone is so distracted, we become easy targets.
- Someone in the streets where I’m volunteering asked me for donations. I talked with other volunteers, asking about help to find donations for him and they said he was selling the donations.
- There are people selling items they collect from donation points. I see it all over Facebook. Huge stockpiles of diapers, cleaning supplies, clothes, purses, etc.
- I have had friends have AC companies quote for new AC unit ($10k a pop) and then sent my repair man out to say the units are fine and may need a new coil at $1400 max. Also had a general inspector confirm units were fine.
- (My husband’s) warehouse was broken into during the hurricane. They took almost everything valuable from his office including his signed print of The Alamo.
- People trying to return our donated items to the store for cash- we were told to cross through the bar code with a thick black marker so this couldn’t happen.
- Price gouging! I got quotes for drywall replacement from $20K to $41K!
- A picture of my collapsed townhome was posted on FB as if it was someone else’s home. They used it so they could garner sympathy and collect donations for a boy who wasn’t living in any of the Townhomes and his home wasn’t flooded. The post was eventually taken down but not until they bragged about getting all kinds of money….for example $5k from someone and $250 from State Farm.
- The Red Cross hasn’t even been here yet and all I hear is them asking for donations.
I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the level of crimes and scams that happened across the Houston area following Hurricane Harvey. I have to admit, I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime and, in fact, lived for more than 20 years in a part of the world where typhoons were a regular occurrence, but seeing up close the impact a record-breaking flood has on families and businesses and then hearing about the lowlifes who saw opportunities to commit crime — well, it’s been discouraging. Life for these families will forever be divided into, “before the flood” and “after the flood,” and they didn’t deserve to be victimized twice, first by Mother Nature and second by their fellow human beings.
Not everything post-Harvey has been terrible. In fact, on our partner blog, The Survival Mom, you can read inspiring examples of how the communities, including my own, pulled together in extraordinary ways. “27 Creative Ways to Help Disaster Victims” and “50+ Ways to Help the Victims of Harvey (and other disasters yet to come)” are encouraging because just about everyone in our community found a way to help out.
There’s no doubt that the crimes listed here are happening again and again across the country, wherever vulnerable people can be found. With these examples from my own experience, I hope you’ll be able to protect yourself and your loved ones from the human scum who see you as their prey.