By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Mo (Reuters) - The historic May 22 tornado not only deprived thousands of Joplin, Missouri, residents of their homes and belongings but made them vulnerable to crimes like identity theft and contractor fraud.
Federal, state and local authorities have banded together to warn citizens about the potential for crime. Arrests have already been made for looting destroyed homes.
"We don't want to see anyone re-victimized who has already been victimized by the tornado," said Bridget Patton, FBI spokeswoman in Kansas City.
The tornado killed 156 people and destroyed some 8,000 homes and other buildings in Joplin. It was the deadliest tornado in the United States in more than 60 years.
The unusually large scope of the disaster warrants the extensive alert to possible criminal acts, Don Ledford, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Missouri, said.
The FBI recently organized a meeting in Joplin attended by representatives of 13 law enforcement jurisdictions, Patton said. The agency has created a task force to field and investigate fraud and other complaints.
"Experience tells us that following each disaster, unscrupulous individuals, contractors, businesses and even government employees try to take advantage of the disaster and unduly profit," said Robert J. Nixon, supervisory special agent for the FBI in southwest Missouri.
One concern is that criminals will try to get federal disaster relief funds meant for victims by assuming their identities, officials said.
PHONY GOVERNMENT REPRESENTATIVES
Joplin police investigated reports from tornado victims who had been approached by persons who said they were government representatives, said police spokesman Chuck Niess.
"They had fake government credentials and were trying to get personal information," Niess said. There have been no charges in the ongoing cases, he said.
Police warn that some con artists posing as government officials will request a processing fee to secure disaster relief payments or loans. Others have pretended to be safety inspectors who try to collect for repairs they said were required immediately, police say.
Ledford of the U.S. Attorney's Office said no federal charges have been filed in connection with any Joplin crimes but there have been some investigations, which he declined to detail.
One potential crime is identity theft of victims whose credit card, banking and other personal records were tossed to the wind by the tornado or left exposed in destroyed homes. Police advised people to close all accounts immediately, Niess said.
Authorities also have advised caution when giving to organizations that profess to be raising money for victims.
People should be wary of e-mail fund-raising drives, high-pressure personal pitches, requests for cash rather than checks, and organizations with names similar to well-known charities, officials said.
Another scam could be attempted by contractors for cleanup or repairs. They may be unlicensed, uninsured or unqualified or may seek to overcharge and be paid in cash only, police said. The state attorney general has warned contractors they will be prosecuted for any attempted price-gouging.
Police have made some arrests for looting destroyed homes or businesses, which continues to be a problem six weeks after the tornado, Niess said.
"It's almost a non-stop issue," Niess said. "Every thing is still all open and stuff is laying around."
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)