NEW YORK, Nov 14 (Reuters) - The New York Police Department has begun randomly stopping tow truck drivers leaving storm-ravaged flood zones with cars in tow and checking their paperwork, hoping to head off a wave of fraud and auto theft.
The new, random checks are part of an effort to avoid a repeat of the crime wave - including a rash of stolen cars - that struck New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said chief NYPD spokesman Paul Browne.
While overall crime in storm-damaged areas of New York City has been flat or down since Hurricane Sandy pummeled the area late last month, authorities have made 226 arrests for storm-related offenses so far, Browne said. He said most arrests were for burglaries, but a number of larceny arrests involving tow truck companies have also been made.
In one case recently, a tow truck company tried to charge the owner of a car left in a New York City flood zone $2,300 to retrieve it, according to Browne. In another case, a car owner was charged $1,000 to retrieve a vehicle.
"We're trying to get out ahead of this and prevent the kind of fraud and theft that they saw down in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina," Browne said Wednesday.
Police recently arrested a man in Howard Beach, Queens who was driving a van rigged with tow equipment that was towing away a Porsche, an NYPD official involved in storm-fraud investigations told Reuters.
"It was being stolen," the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations, said. "He had fraudulent GEICO insurance company papers."
Browne said NYPD officials have been consulting with counterparts in the New Orleans Police Department, as well as investigators with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a non-profit insurance industry organization that helps insurance companies and law enforcement agencies detect, track and prosecute insurance fraud crimes.
Another common storm-related crime that police are on the lookout for is cars declared to insurance companies to have been irreparably damaged by salty flood waters being diverted back onto the used car markets.
"We had a thousand brand new cars that were completely submerged in salt water on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn," Browne said. "We want to make sure that cars like that, which sustained that kind of damage, aren't moved back into the second hand market."
Police have also dispatched 500 light towers to Sandy-ravaged neighborhoods still without power in Staten Island, Rockaway, Queens and sections of coastal Brooklyn, to illuminate the areas and discourage looting, burglary and car thefts. (Reporting By Chris Francescani; editing by Paul Thomasch and Andrew Hay)