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State and local agencies report theft, scams targeting tornado victims

Mayfield, Kentucky after tornado damage
Posted at 7:01 PM, Dec 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-22 08:25:53-05

(LEX 18) — While many are sending donations and aid to Western Kentucky in the wake of the devastating tornadoes that killed at least 76, a few have been accused of trying to take advantage of the desperate situation.

State and local agencies are reporting that there have been multiple instances of scams and thefts against the victims of the deadly tornado outbreak.

“These individuals are posing as FEMA representatives, American Red Cross workers, insurance adjustment, contractors for debris removal or general contractors when all they are are miserable human beings that are trying to take from people who don't have anything to take," Gov. Andy Beshear said during his press conference Monday.

Police say that scammers and those looking to steal personal items flung from destroyed houses are targeting some of the most hard-hit areas, like Mayfield and Bowling Green.

The Graves County Sheriff’s Office reported that they arrested five people who were allegedly working as a group to rummage through tornado victims’ wrecked homes to take their belongings. The five were also accused of loading up tornado-damaged vehicles onto trailers and driving away with them, according to the sheriff’s office.

Shawn Helbig, a former Bowling Green police officer who is now a national trustee for the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police, said he’s spoken with officers on the ground.

“Trucks with trailers will move in, they'll act like ‘I’m helping them move this washer and dryer because it doesn't work anymore,’” Helbig said. “Well, it's not a matter of it doesn't work, it got blown into the front yard.”

The Kentucky Attorney General’s Office worked with Princeton police to arrest four Michigan men accused of going to a hard-hit area of Western Kentucky and stealing items from destroyed vehicles and homes.

“To have someone drive multiple states to take advantage and prey upon our people here in Kentucky, it's disgusting to be honest with you,” Helbig said.

With multiple state and local agencies keeping watch for potential scams and thefts, it’s hard to say exactly how many have been reported so far. But the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office has received 10 reports of scams and 23 price gouging complaints related to the tornados.

“FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Association representatives never charge you for assistance,” Beshear said during his press conference. “This goes back to my AG days, if anybody is trying to charge you on the spot for disaster assistance, if anybody is trying to get you to pay ahead, that is a scam, do not do it, and report them to your local police.”

Helbig said a way to weed out fraudulent contractors offering their help is to ask the person for their contractor’s license and insurance. For people who appear to be taking items from someone’s home, just asking them who they are can be a deterrent, he said.

“Don't be afraid to say who are you and why are you here? Usually, that will back them up pretty quick,” Helbig said.