APISON, Tenn. —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, 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 from 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.
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"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.
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.