PLANTATION, Fla. - Fraudulent applications in South Florida for hurricane assistance after Irma could be slowing down resources for thousands still trying to get back on their feet.
Shallie Olivieri and her family made it through Hurricane Irma's winds with no damage; but for them, the trouble began after the storm when she received a FEMA letter saying she had applied for disaster assistance at her Plantation home.
"I was initially obviously scared that someone had taken my identity and it was alarming," said Olivieri.
The letter showed Olivieri's name, social security number, date of birth and address. But Olivieri has no idea how her personal information got on that form. What's more, the phone number listed with a Canadian area code was wrong.
Olivieri says someone else filled out an application using her husband's information.
Other South Florida residents claim to have received the same letter from FEMA, with all their personal information, even though they never applied for assistance.
"I would just presume they were trying to gain something financially from it," says FEMA spokesperson John Mills. "If proven, this kind of fraud can be felony punishable by prison time."
Mills says in South Florida alone, FEMA has paid out $400 million in grants for damage from Hurricane Irma.
The problem with fake applications is that an inspector has to check out each one, taking away time and resources, and delaying funds getting to hurricane survivors with real needs.
"When you see someone trying to take advantage of a situation and delay assistance getting to someone else take money away from someone else who needs help, that’s outrageous to us," Mills says.
To date, Mills says FEMA has done more than 400,000 damage inspections in South Florida, with 99-percent complete, but they're not done yet.
"Could the damage inspections have been done faster without some of the fraudulent claims that we’re hearing about?" asks Mills. "Absolutely."
If you received a letter and wish to report a fraud-related issue to FEMA or the National Center for Disaster Fraud, contact them at the following numbers:
FEMA - 1-800-621-FEMA
NATIONAL CENTER FOR DISASTER FRAUD - 1-866-720-5721
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