This year’s unusually active hurricane season is bringing strong and destructive storms that are leaving survivors in vulnerable situations, especially considering their arrival during a pandemic. Unfortunately, this vulnerability attracts scammers who intend to take advantage of those survivors during these stressful times. Given the increasing number of people with an online presence – through banking, shopping, and many other social communications — National Cybersecurity Awareness Month is the perfect moment to reiterate the need for vigilance in this area.
The appearance of con artists during disasters is not a new story, so FEMA’s emergency managers strive to inform disaster survivors about scams, identity theft and other fraudulent behaviors that follow in disaster’s wake. When we suspect fraudulent behavior, FEMA and our federal partners take active measures against those bad actors and sanction them appropriately. FEMA actively monitors the use of agency logos and trademarks and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) seal, and we have successfully removed unauthorized products and fraudulent websites seeking online donations.
You can also help prevent scams whether they come via phone, in a text, by mail or email, through websites, or in person. Remember that federal and state workers always carry identification and will never ask for money or fees to provide disaster assistance. Additionally, our FEMA websites will be identified as official U.S. Government sites and will never accept credit card information for payments or donations.
If something about a situation makes you feel uncomfortable or you suspect fraud, report it to local law enforcement or the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-223-0814.
Preventing Disaster Fraud
Our mission to help people before, during and after disasters means we provide financial grants and assistance to individuals and communities through a variety of disaster preparedness, mitigation and relief programs. FEMA receives applications for grant, insurance and loan programs ranging in size from hundreds of dollars for individuals, to millions of dollars for supply contracts to support emergency response and recovery efforts.
The taxpayer dollars entrusted to FEMA come with a responsibility to ensure these funds go to the right place at the right time and are used for their intended purposes. Our system has checks and balances to combat fraud. One way we facilitate this is through the work of FEMA’s Fraud Investigations and Inspections Division, which has the authority to investigate allegations of fraud, waste and abuse of FEMA funds in all 50 states and five U.S. territories.
Examples of this work include:
- Fraudulent claims often arise after hurricanes, such as applicants for FEMA Individual Assistance funds who falsely claim the loss of their small fishing boats as their primary residences. FEMA has coordinated with the DHS Office of the Inspector General to uncover fraudulent claims and prevent funds from being inappropriately disbursed.
- The DHS Inspector General with assistance from FEMA also investigated a grant writer who provided false information to obtain a FEMA Firefighter Grant, and then sold their company’s products to their fire department using the same grant money. The fraudulent claims to gain eligibility for the grant led to their arrest on charges of wire fraud and making false statements, resulting in a 24-month prison sentence, three years of supervised release, and an order to pay $403,355 in restitution.
These investigations, and many others, have improved FEMA’s controls as we work to combat an increase in fraudulent activity in the wake of severe disasters along with identity theft schemes that more than tripled fraud complaints from 2,910 in 2017 to 9,060 in 2018.
FEMA also identifies best practices, including data mining, pattern recognition, awareness training and other techniques to proactively mitigate and stop fraud – often before funds are disbursed. In addition, FEMA coordinates and shares information with other federal and state partners to improve fraud-prevention efforts across the nation.
Whenever FEMA’s emergency managers are in the field, our core values of compassion, fairness, integrity, and respect guide us. Even though FEMA’s work can appear technical, the people who need our help in the aftermath of disasters are always at the forefront of everything we do.
Our goal is to ensure that Americans are confident that FEMA will be there not only to protect and support individuals before, during and after disasters but to also serve as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. When that happens, we have more resources to support our fellow citizens whenever – and wherever – help is needed.
If you suspect disaster fraud, report it your local law enforcement authority or the FEMA Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-223-0814.