Looting, Fraud on the Rise After Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy had hardly finished its rampage across the eastern United States when the looting began.
Reports quickly popped up about burglars entering homes and shops to make off with contents that hadn’t been destroyed by the storm. A handful of arrests have been reported across the region so far for looting, with many more anecdotal accounts of the free-for-all.
Unfortunately, looting is a common occurrence following a major storm.
“It’s more or less a crime of opportunity,” says Bruce A. Barket, a founding partner of New York criminal defense firm Barket, Marion, Epstein & Kearon. “There are whole areas without electricity, that are, to some degree, unpopulated. So there are no alarms, and the police are doing other things.”
With public safety officials occupied trying to keep people alive, especially in the immediate aftermath of a storm, looters have their pick of the neighborhood.
“Once you enter into a premises with an intent to commit a crime then it’s a burglary, whether it’s commercial or residential,” Barket says. Burglary in New York carries penalties of up to seven years in prison, or up to 15 years for a residential burglary — but that’s only if the already overstretched police can nail the culprits.
On a happier note, the post-storm surge of property crime usually coincides with a temporary drop in violent crime.
“Personal violent crimes go down, like murder and assault and robbery,” Barket says. “For whatever reason individuals are nicer to each other when they see them. They see someone in the street, they’re not going to rob them, they’re going to help them.”
Fraud Here, Fraud There
Looting isn’t the only criminal behavior that spikes in the wake of a disaster. A couple types of fraud are also common: Insurance fraud and relief-money fraud.
For insurance fraud, typically people who lived in homes that were damaged overstate their claims or try to make a claim on items they didn’t actually own.
“People take advantage of applying for aid they’re not entitled to, and making claims on insurance items that are exaggerated,” Barket explains. Insurance companies work to verify and adjust claims, but when dealing with untold thousands at a time may not put in the due diligence to catch a liar in the act.
The same applies to government aid — when workers strapped for resources are trying to help as many people as they can as quickly as they can, cheaters can slip through the cracks.
Perhaps even more objectionable than stealing from the government or insurance companies are people who set up fake relief agencies to rip off their charitably inclined fellow citizens.
“Once the hurricane is named and it threatens landfall on an area, there are groups out there that will purchase a domain name [related to storm relief] in anticipation,” Barket says. “Once it hits they pop up a website to get donations from PayPal. The FBI issued a number of fraud advisories or warnings to people to be careful about what they’re donating to.”
The easiest way to make sure hard-earned dollars earmarked for relief actually make it to the people who need it is to donate to well-known, established organizations such as the Red Cross or Salvation Army. As for those who would rather take advantage of a storm to cash out, each type of fraud carries penalties from up to seven years to as many as 25 years in prison, depending on the amount of money involved.
The fraud and loot fests don’t last forever. Before long, Barket notes, residents of a storm-battered area get back to committing crimes more in line with traditional patterns.
“A few weeks out,” he says, “everything will level off a little bit once the area is back to normal.”