In the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, the Justice Department is bracing itself for a flood of disaster fraud cases.
In order to coordinate efforts to deal with this type of fraud allegations, the Department of Justice has issued a memo to every US Attorney’s Office, offering specific guidelines to enhance their fraud-fighting efforts.
“Fraud inevitably follows disasters,” criminal justice columnist Tom Jackman said in a recent Washington Post article. Post-disaster scams have multiplied after each natural catastrophe in the US. Katrina has been a notable example. In the aftermath of the hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005, there were 1,400 federal prosecutions for fraud committed in connection with relief efforts.
In fact, the National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) was created in response to the superabundance of Katrina-related fraud allegations. Only a few days after the last of a wave of hurricanes hit several US states, the Center has already received over 400 complaints.
The majority of the complaints involve attempts to defraud the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Some hurricane victims have been approached by fraudsters impersonating FEMA officials to secure funds and identifying data. In other cases, fake charities raise money that will never be used to offer relief to those affected by the disasters.
"The thing that makes this the most scary is the fact that we are not likely seeing the spike, 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," NCDF Director Corey Amundsen has commented.
The DOJ’s disaster fraud memo establishes a policy that focuses on the direction of all related complaints to the NCDF and creates a framework that ensures the allocation of all the necessary resources to fraud investigation and prosecution, including the creation of regional disaster fraud task forces.
The Department of Justice hopes the memorandum will help local prosecutors, especially in affected areas like Florida and Texas, better deal with the spike in fraud allegations.
According to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, “It is imperative that the department is able to properly track and manage its response to claims of disaster fraud. By working together, we can ensure that federal emergency relief funds are properly distributed to those who need them most and that taxpayers are not victimized by fraudsters or other criminals.”
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