Hurricane Florence is the first major hurricane of the 2018 season, and with Gordon now a tropical depression dumping several inches of rain on the Southeast, it’s safe to say hurricane season is in full gear.
Forecasters are predicting three to five hurricanes hitting the coastal U.S. this year, with Florence possibly threatening the East Coast next week.
Following such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 comes an inpouring of federal money for disaster relief.
Where there is federal money, there also are scammers.
The National Center for Disaster Fraud (NCDF) has posted a call center, the Stephenson National Center for Security Research and Training (SNCSRT), on the campus of Louisiana State University (LSU). This places Baton Rouge on the front lines of the battle against disaster fraud, Baton Rouge Proud reported.
So, what exactly is disaster fraud?
“Disaster fraud is a deliberate act to deceive people, government organizations or private industries after devastating events for personal financial gain,” according to Security Intelligence. According to Fraud Magazine, disaster fraud can fall into several categories, including charitable solicitation, price gouging, contract and vendor fraud, property insurance, and forgery.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, federal prosecutors charged more than 1,200 cases of disaster fraud in 49 districts, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The NCDF was originally established after Hurricane Katrina by former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as the Katrina Fraud Task Force (KFTF). In 2008, the KFTK was redesignated as the NCDF and became a separate program in 2008 under the SNCSRT. The NCDF is funded through a cooperative agreement between the Department of Justice and LSU and their total funding is $5.6 million.
A part of the function of the NCDF call center on LSU’s campus is to screen reports of disaster fraud and refer them to the appropriate law enforcement agency. Agency staffers “…work with LE and prosecutors to protect victims and their benefits from criminal activity.” They also provide onsite training for how to respond in a post disaster scenario.
In the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, CNN reported that the number of complaints were consistent with the numbers following Hurricane Katrina.
“Among complaints are accounts of people impersonating FEMA representatives, charity fraud, suspicious ads, Red Cross donation fraud, electricity disconnection threats and thieves pretending to need shelter…`If Katrina is a guide, we can expect to be fighting this issue for the next decade,” then acting director for NCDF Corey Amundson said in 2017, according to Reuters.
“Investigators found 5,000 questionable Katrina-related websites after that storm…” the Washington Post reported. “….and not just from the area of the disaster, but nationwide. While Katrina was still slamming into Louisiana, a man in Florida launched ‘AirKatrina.com’ claiming he was a private pilot performing rescues and needed money for fuel,” and this is just one specific example.
Disaster fraud perpetrators prey on those who have been the victim of horrible tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina. Many of these people have lost everything and are seeking to rebuild their lives, but there are those who would prey on their vulnerability and seek to take advantage of them under the guise of “helping.”
The National Center for Disaster Fraud can be reached by calling the Hotline at 866-720-5721.
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