Thursday, October 09, 2008

Hurricane Disaster is over but disaster fraud just beginning.

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season is almost over, but in the wake of Gustav and Ike, the season for disaster fraud is just beginning.

Hurricanes and other natural disasters—like this summer’s California wildfires—bring out the best in people, who volunteer to help with cleanup efforts and make charitable contributions to victims. But disaster also brings out the worst in people—and not just crooks and scam artists. Sometimes, when it appears there’s easy money to be made and no one is watching, otherwise law-abiding citizens can get caught up in crime.

How else to explain the case of the fire chief who’s now serving 14 years in jail? The Louisiana resident, who had no previous criminal record, volunteered to organize medical relief efforts in Baton Rouge shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. He then proceeded to steal and sell nearly $500,000 worth of government-owned defibrillators. When the theft was discovered and an investigation was begun, the fire chief tried unsuccessfully to hire a hit man to kill a witness that could link him to the crime.

And how else to explain the actions of a certain Texas man, who even before Hurricane Ike made landfall last month, was seen beating his pickup truck with an empty propane tank? He told a friend he planned to report the battered truck as having been storm-damaged so he could collect an insurance settlement.

Frauds large and small related to disasters are the business of the National Center for Disaster Fraud, formerly known as the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. This special task force was established by the Department of Justice to investigate, prosecute, and deter fraud in the wake of Katrina, when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region. Now, its mission has expanded to include fraud from any domestic natural or manmade disaster.

More than 20 federal agencies, including the FBI, are co-located at the Baton Rouge command center, and together with local and state law enforcement partners and U.S. Attorneys, the task force has posted impressive results.

To date, the task force has brought federal charges against more than 900 people from all over the country. The command center has screened more than 26,000 complaints—everything from charity fraud and public corruption to contract fraud and identity theft—and referred more than 17,000 of them to law enforcement for investigation. Already, the task force has received 1,300 calls relating to potential fraud from Gustav and Ike.

Of course, the best way to stop fraud is to keep from being a victim in the first place, and that means being aware of how fraudulent schemes work

And for those who see an opportunity for easy money after a disaster by breaking the law? If you think no one is looking, think again. You can fool me once but not twice.

No comments: