Con men see opportunities in disaster. That's not a new idea, Monmouth County Acting Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said.
Following Hurricane Sandy, with tens of thousands of residents, many of them right here in the county, rebuilding their lives, there needs to be protection for those who are most vulnerable, he said.
On Wednesday, Gramiccioni unveiled the Monmouth County Superstorm Sandy Fraud Task Force, a two-pronged, multi-jurisdictional effort that promises to be proactive and reactive when it comes to identifying potential instances of fraud and ferreting out the criminals responsible.
Flanked by prosecutor's office detectives, county freeholders, and representatives from New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, said the task force would provide residents with "one single, integrated agency to contact rather than having them contact a host of local, county, or state agencies or offices," streamlining the process of seeking assistance and reporting fraud.
Creation of the task force is necessary to protect homeowners during the recovery effort, he said, as the pressure to rebuild could lead to shady deals with unscrupulous contractors. In Monmouth County alone, nearly 33,000 residents have applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has provided nearly $70 million in assistance so far.
While the Prosecutor's Office will respond to instances of suspected fraud, the hope is that the task force will be able to educate residents, teach them about the warning signs of a bad deal, before they become victims.
There are red flags residents should look for when hiring a contractor. If they want a large payment up front, if they're seeking cash-only payment, if they offer to work without a contract, and if they lack proper state licensing, they could be suspect.
The Prosecutor's Office is capable of going after criminals, Gramiccioni said, but prevention is a much better alternative. To that end, the task force has established several methods for residents to seek information or report a instance of suspected fraud. Residents can visit the task force website at www.sandyfraud.com, or call 1-855-726-3939 for more information.
Residents can also visit the Task Force Command Center, which is located in the Bayshore Activity Center at Bayshore Waterfront Park, 719 Port Monmouth Road in Port Monmouth. The center is open Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Thursday 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Gramiccioni said based on the amount of walk-in traffic, hours at the command center could be expanded.
A strong task force partner is the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs. In the aftermath of Sandy, the department has received about 75,000 complaints, statewide, related to recovery efforts. While many of those are customer complaints, not criminal complaint, the volume of calls illustrates how much it is needed to have one source for residents to turn to.
DCA Acting Director Eric Kanefsky said agencies will work together as long as is needed through the recovery process.
"The attorney general and our law enforcement partners, such as Monmouth County, will continue to devote these resources and the attention necessary to help this state recover and repair without being victimized by those looking to deceive or defraud and take unlawful and unfair advantage of our citizens," he said.
There are resources for those who feel they've been victimized through fraud. Those with complaints can complete a Complaint Intake Form online or in writing, which will then be reviewed by the task force and acted on if the incident is thought to be a criminal one.
Victims of Sandy should remain vigilant. Even with the task force looming, not all criminals will be dissauded.
"The initial shock wave from Superstorm Sandy is still fresh in our minds, but as the rebuilding process kicks into full gear, it is important to stay alert and remain vigilant to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of fraud," he said.
Freeholder Serena DiMaso said the creation fo the task force should serve as fair warning to those who coming to Monmouth County with any wrong ideas. It's unfortunate that the county needed to take this step to protect its residents from fraudsters, but because they're out there steps will be taken to ensure they won't find victims here.
Among those agencies assisting in the task force are the Prosecutor's Office, the Sheriff's Office, the Department of Community Affairs, the Division of Aging, Disabilities and Veterans' services, the Division of Weights and Measures, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service.