Mayor Bill White puts it this way. "Where we find fraud, where people are getting money posing as victims or victimizing the victims, when we have opened our arms for shelter, we want to make sure your next shelter is jail," he says.
The mayor and other local officials say that after nearly every natural disaster, fraud and other schemes are part of the unfortunate aftermath. He says Houston won't tolerate criminals preying on storm victims or local residents. "We've been responding to this whole situation with compassion, for which we're proud, with efficiency and we are going to come after you if you try to defraud the victims or the taxpayers or the charities. Move on. This isn't the right place to be," says White.
Possible scams include bogus websites taking donations for hurricane victims, housing repair schemes and even outright robberies by crooks who know many of the victims carry large amounts of cash. Houston police chief Harold Hurtt says even though authorities haven't investigated any major scams yet, victims and residents should be careful. "There are individuals out there that would try to take advantage of individuals in the community as well as the people from Louisiana and Mississippi that have moved into Houston as a result of the Katrina disaster," he says.
Russel Turbeville runs the Harris County District Attorney's Office Consumer Fraud Division and says even though there haven't been immediate reports of widespread fraud, authorities expect some within the next few weeks and months.
Houston's Better Business Bureau is temporarily handling New Orleans complaints of consumer fraud and scams. President Dan Parsons says only a few complaints have come in since the Katrina, but because of the nature of the disaster, there will be more later. "Unfortunately, we think this may be kind of, unlike Allison, Alicia, even 9-11, this may be more protracted because you've got such a long recovery period," he says. "You've got issues of not just charity, but you've got economics, social issues, so bad guys who are looking for work are going to have plenty to work from."
Parson's warns against so-called charities or contractors that solicit without the donor or victim making contact first.