As Australia struggles to deal with the aftermath of hundreds of bushfires, dozens of which are still burning, authorities have also warned of looters in towns where people have evacuated and scammers raising fake funds for relief.
New South Wales (NSW) Police said on Tuesday three people, including a 17-year-old male, have been charged over alleged offences committed in areas of the state’s South Coast area impacted by bushfires.
Gary Worboys, Deputy Police Commissioner and Head of State Emergency Operations, said police were “proactively patrolling bushfire-affected areas to prevent and target … opportunistic thieves.”
“It’s difficult to comprehend that there are people, who would try to profit or benefit at the expense of communities who have already lost so much,” Worboys said on Tuesday.
He said it was “absolutely unacceptable and criminal behaviour.”
“There’s no specific offence for looting but as we know, people’s homes are their castles and particularly in these times of devastation, it really does go against the grain of the Australian people and spirit,” Worboys said in Sydney.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated last week due to severe fire danger as a result of extreme weather conditions in the south and east of Australia.
NSW Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said anyone who takes advantage of vulnerable communities affected by bushfires is “the lowest of the low” and should face the full force of the law.
“At a time when we’re seeing unprecedented levels of generosity pour in from every corner of NSW, it’s unthinkable that anyone would seek to exploit those who most need our support,” Elliott said.
“We don’t live in South Central LA or Syria. We don’t do this to each other. This is the south coast of NSW.”
Meanwhile, the Australian consumer watchdog has sounded the alarm on scammers duping generous Australians donating to bushfire appeals as tens of millions of dollars have been raised in support of the firefighters, people at firefronts, or the victims of the fire.
The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) said on Tuesday they were dealing with “numerous” reports of such scams.
“Some low-life characters will take advantage of the fact that many people want to donate.
“They want to donate quickly, and many are doing it for the first time.
“We have come across a range of different scams,” ACCC’s chair Rod Simms said.
ACCC said they have established a dedicated hotline to report bushfire fundraising-related scams.
Simms said the most common way of scamming people was the cold call and text seeking donations.
Social media campaigns have also been used to scam people, he said, while “perhaps the most egregious way is people impersonating relatives of people who have died, perhaps on a Facebook page, saying join me and fund me, when it is fake.”
Lisa Neville, Emergency Services Minister in Victoria, where more than 1.25 million hectares of land has already burned, said some current frauds involved people impersonating bushfire victims and even door-knocking homes seeking donations.
The penalties for misleading people can be up to 1.1 million dollars (760,000 dollars) per breach, or a quarter of a million for individuals, Simms said.
The warnings on looters and scammers come just a day after authorities revealed that more than 180 alleged arsonists have been arrested for starting bushfires in five of the six states of Australia since the start of the bushfire season in September.