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Tiny Tracy, Minnesota, adds fraud to flooding woes

Pictured: a 2016 flood in Willmar, Minnesota. A recent flood in the small town of Tracy recently made it a target for scammers.

Pictured: a 2016 flood in Willmar, Minnesota. A recent flood in the small town of Tracy recently made it a target for scammers. Star Tribune

Tracy, Minnesota, is not a town you’d expect to become a hotbed of fraud.

It’s named for railroad official John F. Tracy, and people still celebrate its days as a hub for Chicago and Northwestern Railway lines with Boxcar Days. It’s the kind of town where the entire high school graduating class includes 48 seniors. The city’s website will tell you that “many” claim the town’s Labor Day parade is the largest in southwest Minnesota.

On July 3, the town of 2,000 was pummeled by a foot of rain. Water flowed over roads and manhole covers popped. Residents woke to find raw sewage in their basements and sheetrock gone pulpy from the wet.

Soaked and miserable, Tracy faced an enormous cleanup. That’s when residents started getting calls from people saying they were with “FEMA” -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

They offered to help residents get their lives back by sending cleanup crews to dry out their basements and bolster their walls, and get human waste as far away from them as possible. All they needed was a huge down payment in advance.

The calls were scams. FEMA provides disaster assistance in the form of grants, which help pay for temporary housing or fixing up homes. None of that requires a down payment up front. But for a scammer, a flood is an ample opportunity.

“Seventy-five percent of the town has water damage of some kind,” Tracy Police Chief Jason Lichty says. All of Tracy is ripe for the taking.

The FEMA scam is one of the older tricks in the book. Every time there’s huge flooding -- like hurricanes Maria, Harvey, and Irma -- FEMA puts out another press release warning people about fraudsters who want upfront money for cleanup, or demand overdue flood insurance payments. Sometimes scammers even knock on doors and claim they’re there to help flood survivors with their grant applications. FEMA never asks for money, the agency says.

But time and time again, people fall for it.

One of the more insidious variations on this scheme came in the months after Harvey made a mess of Houston. Scammers would call homeowners and get their personal information, then turn around and use it to apply for aid in their names. The scammer gets the money, the homeowner gets nothing.

The Tracy Police Department put up a warning on its Facebook page, telling residents not to offer or accept any money from callers claiming to be FEMA.

When these scams resurface, police advise the use of common sense and asking for credentials.

Common sense is easy to tout when all is well and Boxcar Days is just around the corner. It’s not as easy when your basement is flooded and a stranger is telling you help is on the way.