Disaster Scams: Be Wary When People Want to Help You Too Much

by Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE


Mark Shorten, 51, of Splendora, Texas, who owned a construction company was sentenced to 18 months in prison for his role in scheme to embezzle federal disaster loan payments from victims of Hurricane Ike. U.S. District Judge Patricia Minaldi in Lake Charles also in January ordered Shorten, to pay $126,300 in restitution.

Shorten, formerly of Sulphur, La., and his wife, Sherrie Shorten, pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy charges.

Federal prosecutors say the couple plotted to embezzle money from victims of the 2008 hurricane after helping them secure a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration to repair damage to their home. Sherrie Shorten, who owned a financial company, allegedly told the family to open a joint bank account with her to deposit the SBA money and pay her husband for repair work. Prosecutors said the couple drained the account without finishing the work on the family’s house.

When disaster strikes, there are so many good people who reach out to help the victims. But among those good people are the wolves who look for any opportunity to take advantage for themselves, even if it means victimizing people who have already been victimized in some other way.

  • Beware of “group” assistance. When several individuals from the same family (or group of people) offer to play different roles in helping you obtain assistance, there’s good reason to consider there’s a possibility of collusion. Particularly when it comes to financing, it’s wise to obtain your counsel from an objective third party.
  • Do not open bank accounts in joint tenancy with anyone you don’t know. A jointly held account generally means that any one signer can access all of the money.  There is no reason for a stranger to have themselves included as an owner or signer of a deposit account.
  • Should you believe you are a victim of a disaster scam report them to the National Disaster Fraud Hotline


Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, is a California attorney, insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance issues including fraud. Mr. Zalma has also written a number of books and writes a free newsletter on insurance fraud. See his new program on insurance fraud, “Who Got Caught?” online at www.WRIN.tv.