Disaster fraud complaints are pouring into the National Center for Disaster Fraud in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and federal officials say they expect it to get much worse.
The center has already received more than 400 complaints, most of them involving allegations of people trying to defraud the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to the center’s acting director, Corey Amundsen.
The center is also getting complaints about fraudsters impersonating FEMA officials and asking hurricane victims for personal identifying information and money in order to receive FEMA funds.
Corey, along with four US attorneys from the impacted areas, held a conference call with reporters Thursday to discuss the center’s efforts in combating fraud related to the recent hurricanes.
“The thing that makes this the most scary is the fact that we are not likely seeing the spike,” Amundson said. “We expect the spike in fraud complaints to come months later after FEMA and the other federal agencies begin providing monetary assistance to the impacted areas.”
The complaints also involve charity fraud, suspicious ads for inspectors and threats of disconnection of services. The center did not provide specific instances of fraud.
“It’s so sad that there are predators and fraudsters out there ready to pounce and revictimize these very same people that are suffering,” said US Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, Christopher Canova. “There is a finite amount of money for the relief efforts for these victims, so every dollar that is misdirected to line the pockets of the greedy and the fraudsters is money that is being deprived to the needy victims.”
The number of complaints the center has seen already is consistent with the number reported immediately following Hurricane Katrina when federal prosecutors in 49 districts charged more than 1,400 people with disaster fraud, not including the untold number of state prosecutions, according to Amundson. The widespread fraud following Hurricane Katrina is what led federal officials to establish the National Center for Disaster Fraud.
“If Katrina is a guide, we can expect to be fighting this issue for the next decade,” Amundson said.
The majority of complaints related to Harvey and Irma have come from the affected areas, but have also come from across the country — from California to Massachusetts.
“The fraudsters aren’t waiting and they need to know we are coming for them,” warned Amundson, who promised the center will aggressively pursue anyone who commits disaster fraud.