Jim Kouri
February 28, 2006
Taxpayers ripped off by Katrina victims
By Jim Kouri

In a report on Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita cash disbursements to victims of these devastating natural disasters, it was discovered that one-in-three "victims" defrauded the government taxpayers in obtaining financial assistance in the aftermath of the disasters.

The report reveals that some victims double-dipped and collected twice, while others bought items such as pornography, guns and other items not usually believed to be emergency assistance.

As a result of widespread congressional and public interest in the federal response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, General Accounting Office conducted an audit of the Individuals and Households Program (IHP) under Comptroller General of the United States statutory authority.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed homes and displaced millions of individuals. In the wake of these natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency faced the challenge of providing assistance quickly and with minimal "red tape," while having sufficient controls to provide assurance that benefits were paid only to eligible individuals and households.

In response to this challenge, FEMA provided $2,000 in IHP payments to affected households via its Expedited Assistance (EA) program. Victims who received EA may qualify for up to $26,200 in IHP assistance. As of mid-December 2005, IHP payments totaled about $5.4 billion, with $2.3 billion provided in the form of EA. These payments were made via checks, electronic fund transfers, and a small number of debit cards.

The GAO identified significant flaws in the process for registering disaster victims that leave the federal government vulnerable to fraud and abuse of EA payments. For Internet applications, limited automated controls were in place to verify a registrant's identity.

However, they found no independent verification of the identity of registrants who registered for disaster assistance over the telephone. To demonstrate the vulnerability inherent in the call-in applications, the GOA used falsified identities, bogus addresses, and fabricated disaster stories to register for IHP.

The GOA found that FEMA's automated system frequently identified potentially fraudulent registrations, such as multiple registrations with identical social security numbers (SSN) but different addresses. However, the manual process used to review these registrations did not prevent EA and other payments from being issued.

Other control weaknesses include the lack of any validation of damaged property addresses for both Internet and telephone registrations. Given the weak or non existent controls, it is not surprising that GAO data mining and investigations to date show the potential for substantial fraud and abuse of EA.

Thousands of registrants misused Social Security Numbers used SSNs that were never issued or belonged to deceased or other individuals. The case study investigations of several hundred registrations also indicate significant misuse of SSNs and the use of bogus damaged property addresses.

For example, investigators' visits to over 200 of the case study damaged properties in Texas and Louisiana showed that at least 80 of these properties were bogus including vacant lots and nonexistent apartments.

They found that FEMA also made duplicate emergency aid payments to about 5,000 of the nearly 11,000 debit card recipients once through the distribution of debit cards and again by check or electronic funds transfer. We found that while debit cards were used predominantly to obtain cash, food, clothing, and personal necessities, a small number were used for adult entertainment, bail bond services and weapons purchase, which do not appear to be items or services that are essential to satisfy disaster related essential needs.

While the news media carp about the slow emergency aid response and the hardships faced by victims of Katrina, civil-rights leaders put a racist face on the disaster, with the media more than willing to provide a platform to the race-baiters. However, don't hold your breath for the mainstream news media to inform Americans that they're being ripped off.

© Jim Kouri

 

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Jim Kouri

Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police... (more)

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