Justice Department Warns of Disaster Fraud After Irma, Harvey

September 14, 2017 Updated: September 14, 2017

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Justice Department has received more than 400 disaster fraud complaints involving relief aid after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and expects a spike in fraud complaints in the coming months, department officials said on Thursday.

The majority of fraud efforts target the federal government itself as people try to defraud Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which administers disaster relief, said Corey Amundson, acting director of the department’s National Center for Disaster Fraud.

Other complaints include people impersonating FEMA representatives, charity fraud, suspicious ads, Red Cross donation fraud, electricity disconnection threats and thieves pretending to need shelter, Amundson told reporters.

President Donald Trump visits the command center of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters, beside Acting Director of the Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke (L), in Washington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump visits the command center of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters, beside Acting Director of the Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke (L), in Washington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Michael Reynolds – Pool/Getty Images)

The complaints come from around the country, not just areas affected by the storms, Amundson, an acting U.S. attorney for Louisiana, said in a conference call with his counterparts for Puerto Rico and Florida.

“The fraudsters aren’t waiting. They need to know we’re coming for them and the public needs to be informed,” Amundson said. “We find it despicable that people that have already been victimized by these disasters face the daunting prospect of being victimized a second time.”

A destroyed marina is pictured in an aerial photo in the Keys in Marathon, Fla., on Sept. 13, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
A destroyed marina is pictured in an aerial photo in the Keys in Marathon, Fla., on Sept. 13, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

The center, which was created after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to handle fraud complaints, has set up a toll-free number (866-720-5721) for people to report suspected abuses.

Amundson did not have dollar estimates for how much fraud was perpetrated related to Katrina or estimate any for this month’s hurricanes, which ravaged Texas and the southeastern United States as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

He said it can take years for fraudulent disaster aid claims to be identified and detected as they work through the federal system.

“If Katrina’s a guide, we can expect to be fighting this issue for the next decade,” Amundson said.