HOUSTON - FEMA has processed nearly 900,000 applications for assistance since Hurricane Harvey. This story is proof that not every case is legitimate.
Beth Stevens checked her mailbox a few weeks ago to find a few letters from FEMA. One had a copy of an application for assistance, the second letter was an approval notice, and the third had a check attached.
It was for $500. The check was issued by the Texas Comptroller’s Office but authorized by FEMA.
"I was just astonished,” Stevens said. “I thought who would go through all the trouble to do this."
She started reading through the application, and her jaw dropped. Stevens says she never applied for disaster relief and never even lost power at her Imperial Oaks home in the Spring area.
"It says I have flood and hail damage, hail/rain/wind driven rain, power surge and lightning, seepage, sewer backup tornado and wind damage,” Stevens read from the page.
The applicant also listed their current location as “mass shelter,” and the date of the damage was Aug. 23, 2017. That’s two days before Harvey even made landfall.
"Someone at FEMA is not paying attention very much,” Stevens explained. “What the heck happened on 8/23 that would make them want to give me $500?”
But the most alarming part of all is Whitney Stevens was listed as the applicant. Whitney was Beth Stevens’ husband. He died last year of a heart attack while playing tennis.
"Someone is using deceased people's information to try to gain something, and that's just wrong,” she said. “It's just wrong."
After hearing about this case and interviewing Stevens, we got in touch with FEMA spokesperson Kurt Pickering.
"If someone puts in the social security number for a dead person, how is that not a red flag right off the bat?” asked reporter Tiffany Craig.
“That would be a good question,” Pickering said. “I don't know the answer to that."
Pickering confirms the FEMA case number is real but can't tell us who applied in Whitney's name or how the phony application got through the system.
"This case is on my radar screen because you put it there,” he said. “In working this case, I've found that there are other cases not identical but there's fraud going around."
Fraud is nothing new for FEMA. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office estimates as much as $1.4 billion was handed out improperly or due to fraud after Hurricane Katrina.
In the Stevens’ case, a contract inspector has shown up at the house wanting to see the damage. On the paperwork left at the door, that inspector lists WSP USA Inc. as his employer. FEMA confirms the company is one of its contractors.
What’s not clear is how the fraudulent scheme could work, since Stevens received the check from a locked mailbox, and no one else could get their hands on it.
"If it's just to cause trouble, who? Who would be trying to cause trouble?” Stevens asked. “If someone is trying to defraud the system, then this is much more widespread than just me."
Approximately 4,500 cases of illegal activity have been reported to FEMA since Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Beth has already been advised to void the check and send it back to an address FEMA provided. Her case is under investigation.
If you suspect FEMA fraud or suspicious activity related to Hurricane Harvey, contact the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 1-866-720-5721.
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