New York police clamp down on tow trucks after storm

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)

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