Preying on people desperate for FEMA relief following this spring's historic flooding events, one man allegedly pretended to be a FEMA representative in order to scam residents out of thousands of dollars, police say.
Late last week, prosecutors charged Derron Skinner with felony forgery after multiple women whom police say he swindled complained to the authorities. Skinner had dressed up in FEMA gear and even presented fake FEMA credentials, promising the unsuspecting people that he could help them expedite their claims, provide them even more money and get some repairmen out to their homes immediately, Houston Police Department Lieutenant Chris Lohse said at a press conference Friday.
After meeting with them in person, Skinner wrote each resident several counterfeit checks, totaling roughly $5,000 each in "flood relief funds," police say. He arranged to meet the women at their banks and deposit the checks through an ATM machine — and then to withdraw $3,000 to $4,000 in cash in order to pay what he called "FEMA fees."
"Rising flood waters bring out all kinds of filthy creatures," Lohse said, "and included among them are criminals who use disaster as an opportunity to prey on victims whose lives have already been devastated by our recent floods."
According to the complaint in state court, one woman got suspicious after Skinner gave her another four checks. Instead of depositing them, she talked to a bank representative — who informed her that the first set of checks were fake. That's when she called the police.
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Lohse said the financial crimes division has identified similar cases in which online scammers instruct people to click on a link and provide financial information. The scammer then sends counterfeit checks while collecting "fees" similar to the ones Skinner imposed.
Lohse emphasized that, if you've applied for FEMA assistance, a representative will never hand-deliver a check — and certainly won't accompany you to the bank and ask for thousands in cash. FEMA spokesman Ken Higginbotham said FEMA never charges for applications.
Police believe there may be more victims out there.
Since President Barack Obama issued disaster declarations in Harris County following the April and Memorial Day floods this year, according to FEMA, more than 10,000 households have received federal assistance, totaling more than $60 million in disaster relief funds. Higginbotham said FEMA could not provide data on how many people have applied for assistance but are still waiting for approval.