FEMA says Northern California fire victims among thousands snagged in suspected fraudulent claims
The FBI, with help from the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office, is examining an alarming number of claims for federal disaster assistance in the wake of this month's fires using North Bay residents' Social Security numbers and other personal information without their knowledge, federal and local officials said this week.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said an undisclosed number of duplicate claims have been discovered in the application process for local fire victims seeking aid after suffering a property loss. The claims qualify applicants for up to $34,000 in federal disaster grants.
Some of the cases could be simple mistakes resulting from multiple forms filed by the same person or for the same address, said FEMA spokesman Frank Mansell. But, the agency has “no doubt” that others have been fraudulent, Mansell said.
He could not elaborate on how many suspicious claims have been flagged by FEMA officials for federal investigators out of the North Bay.
But nationwide, FEMA is now reporting tens of thousands of cases involving duplicate claims submitted for disaster assistance, including applications filed in the wake of the North Bay wildfires and recent storms in Texas and Florida. Those cases include claims FEMA suspects are fraudulent, making use of stolen Social Security and identification numbers, Mansell said.
It's unclear how many North Bay fire victims have been affected, he said. In Sonoma County, the local assistance center in downtown Santa Rosa has served more than 7,100 people, not all of whom have applied for aid. Across the county, nearly 7,000 structures - most of them homes - were destroyed by wildfire this month.
The complete scope and precise origin of the potentially fraudulent registrations remain under investigation, but Mansell noted the country has recently seen “data breaches all over the place.”
The problems follow a string of high-profile data breaches, including at the credit bureau Equifax this year, where the personal information of more than 145 million Americans, including names, addresses and Social Security numbers, was potentially compromised.
Federal officials couldn't say whether that particular breach was directly connected to suspected disaster assistance fraud in California or elsewhere.
“I don't know what to tie it to. All I can say is that information is out there, and there are bad people taking advantage of the system,” Mansell said.
In the fire-stricken North Bay, the problems quickly caught the attention of authorities, including the FBI, which is investigating the matter in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
“Fraud is an important mission of the FBI under normal circumstances, and it only becomes more of a priority for us when the people who are being defrauded are already beset by tragedy and disaster,” said Prentice Danner, a spokesman in the FBI's San Francisco office.
Filing a fraudulent disaster claim is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, according to FEMA.
Common after disasters
Fraud is common after major disasters, given the number of people who are in need of assistance, Danner said. It's too soon to say who might be responsible in this instance, he said.
When applying for federal disaster aid online, over the phone or in person at an assistance center, victims are asked for their Social Security number, the address of their property, a description of damage, insurance information, phone number, an address where they can receive mail and a bank account and routing number.
Chip Banks, a Santa Rosa resident whose longtime Coffey Park home was destroyed by the Tubbs fire, chose to register for the assistance program in person last week.
He and his wife went to the local assistance center at The Press Democrat building in downtown Santa Rosa.
After assembling important paperwork, Banks, 58, tried to complete his registration online at the center. He wasn't able to finish.
“It just threw me out,” he said.
So Banks and his wife sat down with a FEMA agent, who also encountered difficulty while trying to register the couple. Eventually, the agent brought over a supervisor, who asked Banks for his Social Security number, address and phone number, which he provided.
The phone number didn't match - FEMA had one the couple used 10 years ago, Banks said. The center also had the wrong bank on file.
That's when the supervisor told Banks she was going to freeze his account and informed him he should be hearing from the FBI, he said.
“It was like getting hit across the face with a dead, wet fish,” Banks said. “It was dumbfounding.”