The potential for looting and other post-hurricane crimes of opportunity in devastated areas of Ocean County will be addressed aggressively by a new task force under the county prosecutor's office.
Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch-Ford announced a Hurricane Sandy Task Force, which will pursue and assist local police in investigating looting, burglary, contractor scams and price gouging, starting today.
The announcement comes amid growing fears of crimes of opportunity, and the presence of State Police and National Guard in portions of Ocean County. Yesterday in Toms River's Silverton and Snug Harbor neighborhoods, heavily armed police began stopping every vehicle asking for identification. Non-residents were turned away in devastated parts of Bayville as well.
An uncalculated number of Ocean County residents lost homes and property from the storm. Those storm victims should not find themselves victims of other crimes, Lynch-Ford said. She vowed to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
"With regard to people accused of committing looting, scams, and other storm related crimes against persons and property, I have instructed my assistant prosecutors to consider as an aggravating factor in charging and bail recommendations that these crimes are occurring to people rendered particularly vulnerable by an unprecedented natural disaster," she said in a statement released this afternoon. "I am instructing my prosecutors to use the existing criminal code to its fullest extent to prosecutor offenders in this category."
Large portions of Ocean County — the barrier island, Long Beach Island and waterfront areas — are under a mandatory evacuation order, while elsewhere flooded areas and fallen trees have left homes damaged and vacant, with home security compromised and belongings strewn about. Into Friday residents from multiple parts of Ocean County expressed fears that property might be taken. In Monmouth County, 25 arrests were announced by the prosecutor there for post-hurricane crimes.
The county office has not released the number of incidents or arrests it has made, but Lynch-Ford said many of the suspects are "career criminals".
"Unfortunately there will always be a number of people who, rather than making this event a time to offer help to alleviate human suffering, see this tragedy through the lens of the career criminal: an opportunity to steal, to exploit and to endanger the public," she said.
Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Hurricane Sandy Task Force will do the following:
- assist local departments in the investigation and prosecution of crimes that are related to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
- take reports from people who feel they have been the victim of a crime related to the aftermath of the storm.
- release the names and pictures of individuals charged with these crimes, in hopes of educating the public.
- advocate for storm victims further victimized by criminals.
Normally, the county does not release photographs of arrested individuals. Lynch-Ford said individuals charged with post-hurricane crimes here will. It's an effort to find additional victims, she said, as well as aid local law enforcement efforts.
"There are significant issues of public safety uniquely related to the events of the past week," she said. "First of all, identification of the defendant may reveal other criminal conduct and will promote the safety of the general public."
She said detectives believe the contractor scams, break-ins and looting are organized and not random, hitting many victims at once.
"Second, it appears that many of these criminal acts associated with the natural disaster are part of a pattern of organized conduct, with multiple victims. The victims of these crimes may be able to provide important information to police, yet they are not even aware they have been victimized, given the fact that mandatory evacuation orders are in effect, for example, on the Barnegat Peninsula or on Long Beach Island," she said.
With a long clean-up process in place, the Division of Consumer Affairs has already warned residents to fully investigate a contractor before hiring them for repair work. Lynch-Ford agreed and said contractor scams would also be aggressively investigated by the task force.
Lynch-Ford encouraged residents do to the following:
- report suspicious activity to police. They should not under any circumstances try to confront someone they suspect of criminal activity, or to otherwise place themselves in a position where their safety is compromised.
- use the released photographs of arrested suspects in neighborhood watch and help spread the word so neighbors can be on the lookout.
- be aware that contractor scammers may adopt multiple business names or corporate identities.
- Be aware of contractors who are not registered with the State of New Jersey. Verify they are registered by checking the website of the NJ Division of Consumer Affairs, which can be found at the State of NJ website, www.nj.gov, or call the Ocean County Department of Consumer Affairs at (732) 929-2105.
- Be wary as well of contractors who provide estimates for a fee, and then disappear never to be seen again, a common scam following natural disasters.
Sr. Assistant Prosecutor Martin Anton will be designated as Task Force Coordinator and contact person for the Task Force. He can be reached at (732) 929-2027.