A multi-jurisdictional task force met in Joplin yesterday to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of fraud related to tornado disaster relief.
According to Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, the meeting was organized by the FBI in Joplin and hosted by the Joplin Police Department. The group established procedures for coordinating efforts and communicating between agencies and with the public. The task force members reviewed disaster relief activity as well as the applicable state and federal statutes to prosecute disaster relief fraud.
The task force also reviewed procedures to document complaints to various agencies, to maintain a database of information and to review and investigate complaints. Representatives from 13 federal, state and local officials and law enforcement agencies discussed the resources each of the various agencies have committed to disaster fraud cases.
"Federal disaster relief funds are intended to help families and businesses that have suffered tremendous losses from the May 22, 2011, tornado and need these funds to get back on their feet," Phillips said. "None of that relief money should be lost to fraud. We will work closely with our law enforcement partners to aggressively prosecute anyone who tries to victimize these individuals a second time or attempts to defraud taxpayers.
"Criminals who try to prey on those who have already suffered losses and those who try to illegally profit from this tragedy should know that we will bring every available federal charge against them to protect our citizens," Phillips said.
Phillips urged residents and businesses to be aware of and report any instances of suspected fraudulent activity related to tornado relief operations and federal funding for storm victims. This information can be reported to FBI's Springfield office at 417-882-3303 or the Kansas City office at 816-512-8200.
Members of the public can also report fraud, waste, abuse or allegations of mismanagement involving disaster relief operations through the toll-free National Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or the Disaster Fraud e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The telephone line is staffed by a live operator 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Joplin is on the road to recovery," said Robert J. Nixon, supervisory special agent for the FBI in Springfield and Joplin. "As part of the recovery efforts, millions of dollars from the state of Missouri and the federal government are and will continue to flow into Joplin. Experience tells us that following each disaster, unscrupulous individuals, contractors, businesses and even government employees try to take advantage of the disaster and unduly profit.
"Governmental fraud and public corruption are priority investigative matters for the Department of Justice and the FBI," Nixon added. "We are committed to doing our part to ensure that those who commit fraud related to the Joplin tornado disaster are held accountable."
There are a number of federal statutes that could be implicated by disaster relief fraud. According to Phillips, these include: mail and wire fraud, false claims against the U.S.; theft of public funds; insurance fraud; federal program fraud; bank fraud; credit card fraud; Social Security fraud; identity theft; violations of the anti-kickback act; interstate transportation of stolen property; misuse of the Red Cross insignia; conflict of interest (public corruption); false statements; and disaster fraud.
Punishment for these crimes can be up to 30 years in federal prison without parole, plus fines of over $250,000, and restitution to victims.
The public also is reminded to apply a critical eye, ask questions, and do some research before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations on behalf of storm victims. Solicitations can originate from e-mails, web-sites, door-to-door collections, mailings and telephone calls.
Precautions to take include: don't respond to unsolicited incoming e-mails and don't click on links contained within them; be wary of people representing themselves as members of charitable organizations and asking for donations; and make donations directly to known organizations, rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.