TAMPA, Fla. - Chuck Fowler cannot believe what happened after Hurricane Irma. The FEMA application shows how his home in Riverview was damaged by fire, flood, tornado and hail. However, he cannot believe it -- because it never happened.
Somebody filled out a form in his name, used a different phone number, and asked the government for medical, dental and funeral expenses for the bogus damage.
“It’s basically like every single answer that could possibly be checked was checked," said Fowler. “If someone was doing this, seriously, I would say they're an idiot.”
The government followed up, so Chuck had to explain he had no damage. Then he received three more letters explaining how to receive disaster loans for his damage. Then an inspector showed up to examine the damage.
Chuck finally had to clear up his case by withdrawing the claim he never filed. “My initial thoughts were, ‘This is total incompetence.’”
So he wondered: If it's that difficult to stop a bogus damage claim to an undamaged house, how easy was it for people to rip us off for disaster food stamps -- when the state government gave out more than a billion dollars on the honor system.
‘Food for Florida’ was federal assistance handed out by the state. DCF gave disaster food stamps (or money cards worth hundreds of dollars at supermarkets) based on income, assets, family size, and what people said they lost in the storm.
We may never know how many people faked their losses, or downplayed their income to bilk taxpayers. We have already seen ads pop up on Craig's list in Florida asking for cash in exchange for disaster food assistance cards.
A tipster in the Tampa Bay area said he personally knows 11 people who cheated the system.
“They came to me and said, ‘Oh you’ve got to go get a card.’ I said, ‘Why, I didn’t lose anything?’ They said, ‘Neither did we but we went,’” he said. “Most of them laughed about it and said the government owed them.”
DCF responded with this statement noting its focus on oversight:
“DCF worked diligently to ensure that Food for Florida sites served qualified applicants as efficiently and safely as possible so that families in need can buy food for their families. We take our responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer money very seriously and we investigate all instances of potential fraud.
The Food for Florida (FFF) system identified applications that met certain fraud-prone profiles and flagged them. Those applicants were referred to the Public Benefits Integrity (PBI) program. PBI also had staff on-site at each FFF location to interview potentially fraudulent applicants and access various databases to check the information provided on the application. DCF also had support staff on-site conducting “pre-investigations” for profiles flagged as fraud-prone.
The FFF system also identified applications that had mismatching information but did not meet the fraud-prone profiles. These applicants were served by the regular eligibility workers who attempted to resolve the error. If they were not able to validate the information provided on the application, they referred the applicant to PBI staff.
PBI on-site staff reviewed more than 43,800 DSNAP applications, which stopped more than issuing more than $14-million in fraudulent benefits.
Individuals found guilty of submitting false information on their application for DSNAP benefits are subject to criminal prosecution under s. 414.39, F.S. They also can be administratively disqualified from receiving food assistance benefits for a period of time (e.g., 12-months, 24-months, or lifetime) depending on the number of times the person has intentionally defrauded the program. If a person is already receiving benefits in another state and applies for and receives DSNAP benefits in Florida through fraudulent means, they can be disqualified from receiving SNAP for 10 years.
Individuals found guilty of fraud will be required to pay the money back. If they fail to return the money the Office of Public Benefits Integrity can intercept lottery winnings, tax returns as well as other revenue sources."
Governor Scott's press office responded with the following statement:
“The Department of Children and Families (DCF) is doing everything to ensure families receive the resources and help they need quickly after Hurricane Irma by administering this federal program. DCF takes the responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer money very seriously and investigates all instances of potential fraud. Their efforts have allowed DCF to avoid issuing more than $14 million in fraudulent benefits on behalf of the federal government.”
We also asked FEMA to answer questions relating to its oversight. Here is the Q&A:
FOX 13: What systems are in place to catch, spot, and stop fraudulent claims?
FEMA: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has procedures in place, as part of our normal business practices, to identify potential fraud applications. There isn’t a separation of funding for this as it is built in to all of the daily functions. Every claim is subject to a physical, onsite inspection. That solves most situations involving a false address or an improper claim.
FOX 13: How much funding is allocated for oversight?
FEMA: There isn’t a separation of funding for the identification of potential fraud as it is built in to all of the daily functions of the operations within FEMA.
FOX 13: How many fraudulent claims for disaster assistance have you identified in Florida after hurricane Irma?
FEMA: Many of the fraudulent applications were identified by the recipient receiving notification of an open filing in their name, which they did not initiate. When this occurs, we take steps to stop the process and prevent any funds from being distributed to the incorrect filing party. The FEMA fraud investigations are continuing…we are at approximately 100.