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Looters Plague Tornado-Torn South

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May 2: Kenneth Carter, 74, walks through the wreckage of his house in Apison, Tenn. Two looters tried to steal an all-terrain vehicle from his property shortly after it was struck by a tornado on April 27. (AP)

The crooks walked up to Kenneth Carter's tornado-damaged property with the purposeful air of relief workers in need of an all-terrain vehicle like the one he had parked out back.

"They said, `Excuse us, we've got to get this four-wheeler out of here,"' said the 74-year-old Apison resident. "I said, `I don't think so -- that four-wheeler belongs to me!"

Carter avoided becoming a victim, but authorities say the South has been plagued by a variety of swindles since the twister outbreak last week that ripped apart houses and killed 329 people in seven states. 

Looters have carried off televisions, power tools and prescription pills. Elsewhere, there are unscrupulous businesses are charging double for a tank of gas or jacking up the cost of a hotel room. Authorities also warn of construction workers who leave with the cash before opening their tool kit and the danger that identities could be stolen off wind-blown documents.

Though the region has seen similar scams after hurricanes and the Gulf oil spill, the speed of flimflam men this time around has surprised authorities and survivors.

"We have received a surprising amount of calls," said Noel Barnes, consumer protection chief for the Alabama attorney general's office. "We're not going to allow people to further victimize our citizens."

Some residents are packing firearms to scare off the lowlifes. In Pleasant Grove, Ala., Mike Capps was guarding his parents' house over the weekend with an M-1 carbine rifle.

Capps, 41, said he returned to the site the day after Wednesday's tornadoes, leaving his parents in the hospital. Walking up Dogwood Lane, he saw a man carrying a rolled-up power cord that looked familiar. Then he noticed the cord had his own name on it.

"I said, `If your conscience will let you live with what you just did, then you've earned that cord.' And he kept on walking," Capps said.

Later Capps noticed a group -- six adults with children -- on the far side of the lot, going through a plastic bag of his mother's prescription bottles. They were shaking them to see which held pills."

What are you doing in my house? It's time to go," Capps says he told them, and the group complied.

In nearby Birmingham, looters took a woman's flat screen TV off her wall, while to the west thieves swiped a $150 saw from the remains of Claude Patterson's Pratt City welding shop, his livelihood. Elsewhere, stolen items have included the equipment utility companies are using to try to restore power.

Police in several of the states have charged people with looting, though officials said they aren't keeping statewide numbers on those arrests. Tuscaloosa's mayor on Wednesday ordered five more days of an 8 p.m. curfew to curb crime in the most heavily damaged areas, to be enforced by police and National Guard troops. The city that was hit the hardest by the outbreak is also going to start credentialing volunteers to prove they are legitimate.

Marauding thieves aren't residents' only concern. The attorney general's office in Alabama has received nearly 1,800 phone calls complaining about price gouging, Barnes said. The complaints include $2 bags of ice being sold for $5, $400 generators being sold for $1,600 on the side of the road, hotels jacking up their prices and unfair gasoline prices. Just across the border in Tennessee, authorities were investigating a complaint that a service station was charging $40 for $20 worth of gasoline.

Both states have laws against price-gouging. In Alabama, businesses are prohibited after disasters from increasing the price of items for sale or rent by 25 percent or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days.

Dozens of Tennessee gasoline stations were charged with price gouging following Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008. Settlements totaled more than $175,000.

This week, Tennessee investigators were urging victims to upload digital pictures of questionable prices to photo-sharing sites, then submit the links through a complaint form on the state's Department of Commerce and Insurance website, spokesman Christopher Garrett said
Officials said they were also receiving reports of another disaster-zone scam: construction crews that offer to repair homes, then disappear with the money after doing shoddy work or none at all.

And they warned that criminals might collect confidential information scattered in the debris to use in identity theft.

Among the cruelest scams has been criminals impersonating relief workers to steal from tornado survivors. Authorities in Alabama's northern Lawrence County have charged three men and a woman with that crime.

Cleveland, Tenn., resident Rusty Snyder, 34, said he was stunned by how quickly the thieves moved in after Wednesday's storms.

"It happened at 8:45 at night, and by 10 there were looters," he said.

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