Meteorologists have taken to naming large storms like hurricanes, typhoons and nor’easters to warn people about dangerous incoming storms.  At different points in history, officials have explored names to include political figures and even radio names.  Today, there is a process to naming large storms; just as there is a process for criminals to defraud the government of disaster relief funds after the named monsters have wreaked havoc on our country.  According to a article, the 2010 nor’easter that slammed into New Jersey might just have to be renamed “Fraud.”

In March 2010, a powerful nor’easter slammed into the coast of New Jersey, causing extensive wind damage and flooding.  In response to the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered disaster relief benefits to individuals that had sustained damage to their residences.  As part of the process of distributing benefits, a FEMA official must assess the damage of a person’s residence to determine a monetary figure of deserved benefits.  An issue arises when individuals claim disaster relief benefits but do not provide truthful information about the property or other types of aid they currently receive.

Officials discovered one New Jersey woman defrauded FEMA through her application for and acceptance of disaster relief benefits, while she was also accepting rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (Here’s where it would help if officials from multiple agencies had visibility into the type of benefits an individual might be receiving from other agencies.  It isn’t enough to rely on self-reported information.  That’s where fraudsters benefit.) Here’s what happened:  After the nor’easter hit the New Jersey coast, the woman contacted FEMA to apply for rental assistance benefits, claiming her residence had suffered significant flood damage.  A FEMA official assessed the damage and provided $932 per month in rental assistance for the woman to find an alternative means of housing. (So far, she’s okay.) What FEMA didn’t know was the woman’s damaged residence was paid for by housing assistance.  (Now, we have a problem.  You can’t double dip.)  In addition, she had an extensive criminal record, which also disqualified her from receiving rental assistance as part of disaster relief benefits.  A judge sentenced the woman to more than two years of jail time, plus three years supervised release and restitution of $7,200 taken in the scheme.

It seems there is a storm of problems associated with distributing disaster relief benefits.  These benefits help people when they are in their most desperate hour.  The problem is that we need to stop relying on self-reported information when making eligibility decisions.  Continuing to do so is a recipe for disaster for the American taxpayer.

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