North Bay wildfire victims discover identity thieves claimed their FEMA benefits

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- Wildfires have devastated the lives of thousands in the North Bay. Now we've discovered some of those fire victims are also victims of a criminal organization. Our 7 On Your Side team was in the wine country after the fires, and found victims applying for aid found out identity thieves had already laid claim to their benefits.

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Among them was Santa Rosa veterinarian Racelle LaMar. Her Northtown Animal Hospital was destroyed by the wildfires. When she tried to apply for FEMA benefits, she was told someone else had already claimed her funds.

"I went in for some business assistance and found out somebody had already used my social security number to apply for FEMA aid,'' LaMar said. "Which was sort of like, are you kidding me? It's not enough that I'm a victim of wildfires I'm also a victim of identity theft."

The same thing happened to Lorna Allen of Clearlake.

"I showed up, gave them my social security number,'' she said.

Allen lost all of her belongings held in storage. When she tried to apply for FEMA aid, she was told someone had already opened a claim in her name. The person used her social security number and a former address. FEMA would not accept her application saying she had to first make a case she was the correct Lorna Allen.

RELATED: Scam may prevent North Bay fire evacuees from registering for Fema relief

"I can't file or receive anything or get any help because somebody has done this in my name!" she said.

FEMA officials said organized criminals have been using stolen identities to make hundreds of thousands of claims for disaster benefits that are intended for real victims-not just for the fires in California, but for hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

"Across the country it looks like there have been more than 200-thousand fraudulent applications,'' FEMA spokesperson David Passey said. "I don't have an exact number for California, but as a percentage we know it's a fairly large number. "

FEMA officials said they realized last month that thousands of disaster applications for hurricanes Harvey and Irma were bogus

"This does appear to be a fairly sophisticated organization that is matching breached private information against affected areas from the fires here in California and from the hurricanes,'' Passey said.

TAKE ACTION: How to help North Bay fire victims

In Texas, Bellaire resident Jayne Finkowski-Rivera is among those who brought this to the attention of authorities. She had no damage from Hurricane Harvey. She never applied for aid. Yet she received a letter from FEMA that included a copy of an application made in her name, with all her personal information including social security number. That was followed by a letter from FEMA saying it had just deposited $500 for critical needs into her bank account. However, the account it listed was not hers. She realized that money went to the perpetrator.

"It's appalling to know that someone has money that FEMA should be giving to someone who needs it," Finkowski-Rivera said.

FEMA is now scrutinizing applications more closely -- but that is making life even harder for wildfire victims

"He said we can't file another claim until this is resolved,'' Allen said of the FEMA agent in Clearlake.

Note: Wildfire victims told 7 On Your Side they got no help in clearing up the identity fraud. Now their applications are delayed. 7 On Your Side brought this to FEMA's attention. Now officials say they have given clear instructions to agents at disaster centers. if you bring identification to a center, the agents should straighten it out on the spot

Click here for more information on FEMA assistance.

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Written and Produced by Renee Koury
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