Kentucky officials report theft, scams targeting tornado victims

Mayfield, Kentucky after tornado damage
Posted at 7:56 AM, Dec 22, 2021

People across the country are sending donations and aid to Western Kentucky in the wake of the devastating tornadoes that killed at least 76 in the state, and officials have accused some 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," Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said during a press conference Monday.

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

The Graves County Sheriff's Office said they arrested five people for allegedly working as a group to rummage through tornado victims' wrecked homes to take their belongings. They also accused the suspects of loading up tornado-damaged vehicles onto trailers and driving them away.

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 tornadoes.

"FEMA and the U.S. Small Business Association representatives never charge you for assistance," Beshear said during Monday's 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 for tornado victims to weed out fraudulent contractors 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.

This story was originally published by Leigh Searcy and Morgan Eads on Scripps station WLEX in Lexington, Kentucky.