Spring and summer bring along unstable weather to the United States, sometimes birthing tornadoes in the areas between the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Mountains. We cringe when the news features the tornado damage of a string of severe storms, depicting structures and lives torn apart by Mother Nature. While many of us sympathize with the victimized towns and cities, some fraudsters find opportunity in the rubble, according to a Walker Magazine article.
Alabama is no stranger to severe weather; common to the beautiful south are the small and large scale twisters that wreak havoc through towns and cities statewide. In April 2011, a strong storm front pushed through Alabama, spouting tornados that amassed significant damage to large parts of the northern portion of the state. One Birmingham resident exhibited his right as a citizen to apply for disaster relief fraud after the storm’s passing; the only problem was that the man had received no damage to merit federal financial assistance. (Ladies and gentleman, we call this disaster relief fraud. This is no act of Robin Hood’s taking from the rich to give to the poor, this is just theft.) The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) combined their efforts to launch investigations aiming to crack down on disaster relief fraud; but, was this criminal easy to catch amongst the debris?(All you need to do is look for the person claiming their house is damaged and find no house…or debris. Tornadoes don’t make things disappear – it’s not a magic trick.)
In a Sentencing Memorandum the government explained that the fraudster fraudulently diverted the disaster benefits to himself – benefits meant for honest citizens who were genuinely affected by the damage. (In case he didn’t understand, let’s spell out the requirements: (1) You must have a house, (2) You must have a tornado and (3) the tornado must make significant damage to YOUR home. You cannot use someone else’s home in this claim!) The memo stated: “He sought to parlay the community’s devastation and distress into a financial windfall for himself.” Court documents affirm that the fraudster collected $30,200 from the Federal Emergency manage Agency (FEMA), in connection with the Presidential Disaster Declaration relating to the 2011 tornadoes. The federal judge sentenced the fraudster to serve two years in prison, plus five years of unsupervised release. She also ordered the fraudster to pay $30,200 in restitution.
It appears to me the aftermath of the storm didn’t leave behind just structural damage; rather, it left opportunity for the snakes of fraud to slither through the cracks of our aid programs. This man should have just taken shelter and been thankful for his lack of damage, because his keen eye for a chance at theft brought on a whole new storm of trouble.