Officials warn potential scammers to stay away from disaster area

State and local officials gathered in San Bruno this morning to warn victims of last week's explosion and fire in the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood against potential scams as they repair and rebuild their damaged homes.

Four people have already been caught allegedly trying to obtain phony identification from the Department of Motor Vehicles in order to fraudulently obtain services being offered to fire victims, San Mateo County Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.

Wagstaffe issued a warning to anyone plotting to defraud victims through contracting scams or insurance scams, or by falsely presenting themselves as fire victims in order to obtain services.

“We view them as vermin,” Wagstaffe said, “And we're going to prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”

Two of four suspects caught by DMV investigators – Sonya Smith, 44, and Lisa Justin, 42, both of San Bruno – were scheduled to be arraigned this afternoon in San Mateo County Superior Court on charges of burglary, perjury and felony filing of false documents.

“There are other cases under investigation for the same thing,” Wagstaffe said.

A third suspect, Deonte Bennett, 25, is an alleged San Francisco gang member previously accused of murder.

Bennett had been charged along with another man in the Sept. 19, 2005, gang-related fatal shooting of 20-year-old Arkeylius Collins in The City's Bayview District.

Prosecutors later had to dismiss the case when the sole witness, 22-year-old Terrell Rollins, was murdered at a San Francisco auto-body shop after returning to the city while in the witness relocation program.

In 2009, Bennett was again arrested for an alleged murder-for-hire plot involving a 23-year-old woman whose estranged boyfriend allegedly hired Bennett to kill her in exchange for $5,000.

Bennett was later sentenced to probation in that case.

Bennett's attorney, Joe O'Sullivan, today confirmed his client had been arrested in connection with the alleged fraud.
 
O'Sullivan said Bennett had bailed out of San Mateo County Jail and is scheduled to appear in San Mateo County Superior Court Oct. 25.

Rick Lopes, a spokesman for the Contractors State License Board, encouraged victims whose homes were damaged or destroyed to be vigilant when hiring contractors to do repair or reconstruction work.

“Homeowners need to take steps to protect themselves,” he said.

The contractor license board's consumer protection recommendations include hiring only licensed contractors and checking their license numbers; never paying in cash; checking references; and getting a written contract before work begins.

Contractor license numbers can be confirmed at the state board's website at www.cslb.ca.gov or by calling (800) 321-CSLB.

“After the fear, devastation and aftermath of the explosion and fire, the last thing people need is to be victimized a second time by unlicensed scammers,” state license board Registrar Steve Sands said in a statement. “Unlicensed or unscrupulous contractors should know that we are looking for them.”

Nearly 50 homes were damaged or destroyed on Sept. 9 when a natural gas transmission pipeline ruptured and exploded into flames.

“We've already got planned undercover operations,” Lopes warned would-be scammers. “Don't even think about coming to this area.”

Can’t get enough crime stories? Check out The Examiner’s Law & Disorder Crime Blog.

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