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Jonathan Bergeron, 31, pauses from cleaning at the doorway of a shed where he plans to move his family behind his destroyed grandmother's home in Point Pointe au Chien on Friday, October 8, 2021. Hurricane Ida leveled most of this area. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

In response to "numerous complaints" of fraud across Hurricane Ida relief programs, two of Louisiana's top and federal and state prosecutors want people who suspect they've been victimized by scammers to report those problems to the feds.

The acting United States Attorney for Louisiana's Middle District and the state's Attorney General said Thursday that fraud has manifested frequently since the storm through scammers posing as contractors, and infiltrating relief programs run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration.

People who think they've been victims of fraud should report the suspected scams to the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline, the prosecutors said. Previously, FEMA urged people to report fraud to the agency's hotline, but many residents reported hours-long wait times when they tried doing so.

The prosecutors warned of hefty punishments for those who try to take advantage of the post-storm relief system.

"Potential fraudsters must know that, under Federal law, there is a 30-year maximum sentence in Federal prison for those who commit fraud related to disasters," said Acting U.S. Attorney Elton C. Travis.

In the weeks since Hurricane Ida tore through Louisiana on Aug. 30, residents have contacted The Advocate to report dozens of instances of suspected FEMA fraud.

Hundreds of thousands of Louisianans have applied for FEMA’s Critical Needs Assistance during that time. The $500 payments are meant to cover costs like shattered roofs, generator reimbursements and spoiled food, among other things.

Hiding among those filings, the agency says, are digital criminals who use stolen personal information — names, addresses, social security numbers — to enter fake claims in hopes of turning a quick profit.

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The problem is not exactly new.

For decades, FEMA fraud and hurricane recovery have gone hand-in-hand. After Katrina and Rita, which struck Louisiana within a month of each other in 2005, FEMA distributed $2 billion in taxpayer dollars to scam claimants.

That was good for 11 percent of funds the agency spent in Louisiana after those storms, a congressional audit revealed.

Because of Hurricane Ida’s punishing impact — it was the most powerful storm to strike South Louisiana since the 1850s, decimating infrastructure from coastal barrier islands to the Mississippi state line — scam attempts may be particularly widespread, officials say.

But it could be months, or more, before officials know the full cost of fraud after Hurricane Ida. 

Louisianans can avoid fraud situations by never paying a contractor for work that has not been completed, and by hiring well-known local contractors with a reputation for performing good work, Travis said.

Asking insurance claim adjusters to review a contract before it's signed, requesting proof of liability insurance and state licensure, and never paying with cash — because that eliminates a trail if an investigation becomes necessary — are other ways to avoid fraud, he said.

Louisianans can report suspected Hurricane Ida fraud to the National Center for Disaster Fraud at (866) 720-5721, or online at www.justice.gov/DisasterComplaintForm. FEMA's disaster hotline is 800-621-3362.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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