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Blog

    Hurricane Relief Fraud

    06/13/2006

    Investigators recently announced that as much as $1.4 billion in federal aid to victims of hurricane Katrina went to con artists and other undeserving victims. In the wake of the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency distributed billions of dollars in emergency payments to victims in the form of debit cards and checks for rent assistance. However, a damning report by the Government Accountability Office revealed that FEMA did not take sufficient steps to ensure the money was used legitimately. While distributing aid quickly is certainly a priority in a disaster situation, FEMA failed to take even the most basic steps to validate the information of many of the victims who applied for aid, resulting in gross misuse of aid by thousands of people. Here are some excerpts from the official GAO report:

    Based on data provided by the SSA, FEMA made expedited assistance payments to thousands of registrants who provided SSNs that were never issued or belonged to deceased individuals. Further, SSA officials who assisted GAO in analyzing FEMA’s registrant data informed us that tens of thousands more provided SSNs that belonged to other individuals.

    Both our investigations and data mining found thousands of instances where FEMA made more than one payment to the same household that shared the same last name and damaged and current addresses.

    In the days following Hurricane Katrina, FEMA experimented with the use of debit cards to expedite payments of $2,000 to about 11,000 disaster victims at three Texas shelters who, according to FEMA, had difficulties accessing their bank accounts. ... We found that because FEMA did not validate the identity of debit card recipients who registered over the telephone, some individuals who supplied FEMA with SSNs that did not belong to them also received debit cards. We also found that controls over the debit card program were not effectively designed and implemented to prevent debit card recipients from receiving duplicate expedited assistance payments, once through the debit card and again through check or (electronic fund transfer).

    A few of the "emergency" purchases made with FEMA aid include adult videos, football tickets, weapons, massages, tropical vacations, gambling, meals at Hooters, and champagne.

    FEMA's actions resulted in the waste of over a billion tax dollars because it lacked an adequate response apparatus. Apparently, the government is unable to take the simple steps necessary to validate Social Security numbers and addresses before distributing billions of tax dollars.