By Emily Turner

SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — Identity thieves are stealing money meant for homeowners who lost everything in the wine country wildfires.

FEMA says it has seen a big spike in fraudulent claims for disaster money.

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The number of fraudulent FEMA claims is unprecedented. Paul Corrah with FEMA says it is more than double what they saw after Hurricane Katrina.

“Historically we see about one to two percent of our claims that are fraudulent that we catch … but for some reason we are seeing a big increase in fraudulent claims for this disaster,” Corrah said.

They aren’t sure why it’s happening, but they do know how it’s happening.

In order for someone to file a claim they have to have the name, Social Security Number, the numerical address of a burned out home and a phone number.

“Somehow there’s a breach and identity theft somewhere,” Corrah said. “They are getting that information and filing a claim.”

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The checks clearly can’t be sent to the burnt out home, so FEMA says the fraudulent claimants pick a different, sometimes random address. Then they watch the mailbox and when they see the checks delivered, swipe it before the person who actually lives there even knows it’s there.

FEMA won’t say exactly how many claims are fraudulent, and likely doesn’t know yet.

But in Sonoma County alone, the agency has handed out more than $4 million.

If the crime is happening that much, then is FEMA really doing enough to protect these people?

Corrah said, “Well we are changing everyday and looking at every process we have, every single step of the way to try and stop it. But we are also trying to give out benefits to fire survivors who need it. So it’s kind of a balance.”

FEMA says federal and local law enforcement are on the case and looking into this.

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In the meantime, if you want to check your claim, FEMA is urging people to call this number: 1-800-621-FEMA. And if you wrongly receive a check in the mail from FEMA, call FEMA immediately and do not cash the check.