FEMA pledges better disaster relief fund payouts

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s poor use of information technology and lack of management controls were directly to blame for rampant fraud that led to as much as $1.4 billion of hurricane relief funds being misspent, according to the Government Accountability Office.

GAO drew that conclusion in a June 14 report that estimated the cost to taxpayers at $600 million to $1.4 billion. The costs, uncovered through data mining and database matching techniques, are mostly associated with questionable or fraudulent assistance claims from individuals who were in the path of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

FEMA officials condemned the mistakes and abuse and vowed that the agency’s overhauled systems will end them.

“The level of processing error and fraud associated with FEMA’s programs are intolerable,” said Aaron Walker, a FEMA spokesman.

About 16 percent of the disaster assistance claims FEMA paid were dubious, GAO said.

Members of Congress, FEMA and outside interest groups discussed the report and steps for reducing false payments at a hearing last week.

The agency’s poor use of IT included over-reliance in some cases and failure to use it at all in others. In one instance that GAO documented, FEMA relied on geospatial mapping to support a claim of $4,706 in rental assistance to undercover GAO inspectors who listed their address as a vacant lot. In that case, FEMA could have sent someone to the site to verify the authenticity of the claim, GAO concluded.

At the same time, the agency unknowingly paid millions of dollars to federal and state prisoners and people staying on the federal dime in hotels while collecting rent reimbursements, the report states. The agency could not prove that 750 debit cards worth $1.5 million went to people qualified to receive Katrina assistance.

There was little, if any, verification of the names, addresses and Social Security numbers of applicants registering for federal disaster assistance, said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Investigations Subcommittee.

“FEMA’s fraud detection and prevention controls were so weak or nonexistent that these fraudulent applications were never detected, let alone prevented,” McCaul said.

For the 2006 hurricane season, FEMA has upgraded its online registration system to prevent duplicate registrations and identify duplicate Social Security numbers at registration, Walker said.

FEMA has also hired the data broker ChoicePoint to verify the identities and Social Security numbers of all registrants for the agency’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP), which offers housing, real and personal property replacement, and other emergency services, Walker said. In addition, FEMA has altered its automated processes to block payments to applicants whose identities cannot be verified.

The agency has tightened fraud controls in its transitional housing and expedited assistance programs, Walker said. FEMA is providing each registrant a unique authorization code to prevent duplicate payments, he said. And unlike last year, FEMA won’t issue debit cards for expedited assistance cases and will instead issue checks or use electronic funds transfers.

Despite the severity of some of the instances of fraud, several disaster recovery experts said the agency did the best it could. Some fraud was unavoidable as FEMA rushed to deliver services after acting too slowly in the first days after Katrina, said John Copenhaver, a former FEMA regional director for Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. He is now president and chief executive officer of Disaster Recovery Institute International, which provides business continuity and emergency preparedness certifications.

To keep track of registrants in the future, FEMA could create a new database or use DHS’ existing resources to do background checks, said Jeff Vining, vice president of homeland security and law enforcement at Gartner. If FEMA created its own database, however, it could face a backlash from a public stung by the recent privacy breaches at the Veterans Affairs and Energy departments, he said.

How people duped FEMASome people attempting to swindle the government for disaster relief funds after hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005 were bold about it.

Examples found by the Government Accountability Office included the following:

  • One person used 13 Social Security numbers — including his own — to get 26 payments worth $139,000. He listed 13 damaged properties but lived at none of them. Eight of the properties didn’t even exist.

  • A man in Louisiana received $20,000 even though he was incarcerated at the time and gave a post office box as the address of his damaged property.

  • One person received $10,358 in rental assistance and reimbursement for 70 nights at a Honolulu hotel. GAO discovered that the person was living in North Carolina when Hurricane Katrina hit.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.