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Maui residents with wildfire-damaged homes are being targeted by real estate scams, officials warn

Hawaii natives fear gentrification after fire
Hawaii natives fear they'll be priced out of neighborhoods after Maui fire 07:37

As searchers look for the more than 1,000 people still unaccounted for in the aftermath of deadly wildfires that tore through the Hawaiian island of Maui last week, killing at least 101, government officials warned that scammers have already begun to target survivors whose properties were damaged in the blazes.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green's office said in a news release Monday that concerns were rising over the threat of potential scams because "residents are being approached about selling fire-damaged home sites, by people posing as real estate agents who may have ill intent." At a briefing to discuss recovery efforts with Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, Green told reporters that he had asked the attorney general to consider imposing a moratorium on the sale of damaged or destroyed property on Maui and noted that it will be "a very long time" before the island can be rebuilt.

"I would caution people that it's going to be a very long time before any growth or housing can be built, and so you will be pretty poorly informed if you try to steal land from our people and then build here," Green said in a statement.

The Federal Trade Commission cautioned last week that people affected by wildfires on Maui could potentially fall prey to scammers who typically target victims after a disaster occurs. 

"Nobody knows how long it will take to recover from the destruction, but we do know it won't be long before scammers start trying to cash in," the agency wrote in a message shared on its website, which gave an overview of common schemes to watch for, like "imposter scams," where scammers pose as safety inspectors, government officials or utility workers. 

Other potential scams include offers for immediate clean-up and repairs, requests for payment by wire transfer, gift card, cryptocurrency or cash, and any request for payment "to help you qualify for FEMA funds." As the FTC notes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency does not charge application fees.

Lahaina fires
Destroyed buildings and homes are pictured in the aftermath of a wildfire in the city of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui on Aug. 11, 2023.  PAULA RAMON/AFP via Getty Images

The Pacific Disaster Center and the Federal Emergency Management Agency previously estimated that more than 2,200 structures on Maui, most of which were residential, had been either damaged or destroyed in the wildfires. Officials projected that rebuilding communities and infrastructure will likely cost more than $5 billion and said that around 4,500 residents will need ongoing emergency shelter as that process gets underway.

Wildfires that broke out last Tuesday and swept through Maui are now considered the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaii since it became a U.S. state in 1959. The fires hit hardest in Lahaina, a popular tourist destination and business center that was once the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and where, Green estimated, about 80% of the town was destroyed. Blazes were also severe in parts of Maui's Upcountry region, which is further inland and mainly residential, and along the island's southwestern coast near Kihei.

Green said Monday that he and other officials are discussing plans to potentially establish a memorial site in Lahaina, and will "invest state resources to preserve and protect this land for our people, not for any development, for our people locally." The governor pledged to try and restrict land purchased on Maui from out-of-state buyers while the island recovers.

"I'll also tell you that this is going to impact how we view, because of tragedy, how we view all of the development in our state. And much of what we do, is challenged by other laws, federal and otherwise, that don't let us restrict who can buy in our state," Green said. "But we can do it deliberately during a crisis, and that's what we're doing. So for my part I will try to allow no one from outside our state to buy any land until we get through this crisis and decide what Lāhainā should be in the future."

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