Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season and the second-costliest hurricane in the history of the United States, caused major damages to hundreds of houses in Atlantic City, N.J. One of those damaged, or was underwater, was Darrell’s mom’s house. To fix everything, his estimates amounted to more than a hundred grand, though, the amount that he received from FEMA amounted only to $14,000. This was despite the damage from the floors to the furnace (including water heater and boiler) that was documented by a FEMA adjuster. However, a report that came out two weeks later indicated that there was no damage to the boiler.
In October of 2015, three years after Hurricane Sandy, FEMA offered to review around 144,000 insurance claims filed with the National Flood Insurance Program due to alleged fraud and abuse by government contractors. After six months into the review, new allegations of fraud surfaced, this time, however, fingers pointed to FEMA, whose review process are alleged to be rife with abuse.
FEMA, acronym for the the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is a major agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is to “support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.” (https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/videos/80684) To accomplish this mission, FEMA provides disaster recovery assistance (or grants) to every person and household, regardless of race, color, religion, nationality, sex, age, disability, English proficiency or economic status.
Disaster assistance may include grants that will help pay for emergency home repairs (which include foundation, floors, walls, ceilings, roof, windows, furnace, air conditioning system, and septic or sewage systems), temporary housing, uninsured and underinsured personal property losses and medical, dental and funeral expenses caused by a disaster, along with other serious disaster-related expenses (in short, losses that are not covered by homeowners’ insurance.
With natural disasters and the federal government’s efforts in helping victims recover and rebuild, however, are unscrupulous people taking advantage of victim assistance, stealing from the government the funds that ought to go to disaster victims. The continuous committance of fraudulent acts has led the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice to create a Fraud Task Force charged with deterring, detecting, and prosecuting individuals who try to take advantage of victim assistance programs during disasters. This “Task Force tracks referrals of potential cases and complaints, coordinates with law enforcement agencies to initiate investigations, and works with the appropriate U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to ensure timely and effective prosecution of disaster-related fraud cases.” Furthermore, this Task Force acts quickly and aggressively to bring to justice whoever would try to profit from the misfortunes of disaster victims.
Since the creation of this Task Force, more than 900 individuals have already been charged with disaster-related fraud (in relation to Hurricane Katrina alone). While there are still many pending cases, some other cases have already been dismissed after having proved the authenticity of the claims of those charged.
According to a Wisconsin criminal lawyer, due to the aggressiveness of authorities in bringing to justice fraudsters, federal charges are brought against anyone suspected of having stolen from the government. For those wrongly accused, however, so much is at stake. Clearly, having a highly-skilled criminal defense lawyer who can plan a defense that anticipates the tactics prosecutors are likely to use against him/her could really be necessary.