The contents of Melissa Eastman’s refrigerator didn’t make it through Hurricane Irma, but a five-day power outage was a welcome exchange for her family and home being safe.
“It wasn’t too terrible,” she said, recounting the warm days and dark nights. “It could have been worse.”
The 46-year-old Sarasota resident thought she would hold off on applying for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, if she faced more disastrous hardship later on, but had heard that some people received reimbursement for what they lost when the electricity was off.
On Wednesday, she went online to file a claim. Someone had already done so with her name, address and Social Security number.
“I was a little distraught,” she said.
When she put in a call into FEMA, the representative said that a few qualifications that Eastman gave them didn’t match up with the information submitted in the fraudulent claim, which the representative offered to update.
“I said, ‘Stop, don’t do anything. There has been fraud on this account.’”
Eastman said she has never been victim of fraud and has worked hard to protect her information.
“It doesn’t surprise me today with all of the fraud that’s happening in our world,” she said, referring to the recent Equifax data breach that could affect upward of 145 million Americans.
FEMA media relations specialist David Burns said he had been asked about another possible fraud victim in New Port Richey.
“We’re not aware of any widespread fraud,” he said.
Anyone who tries to apply for FEMA disaster assistance and believes someone has submitted a false claim in their name can call the Fraud Hotline at 1-800-323-8603. Fraud can also be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud by calling 866-720-5721 or sending an email to email@example.com.
Residents who think they need to correct a mistake on their claim or withdraw it can contact FEMA’s Helpline at 1-800-621-3362.
“People who intentionally try to defraud the government are taking money away from those who truly need assistance,” FEMA wrote in a statement to the Bradenton Herald. “FEMA must ensure that taxpayer dollars go only to people who incurred legitimate losses. This may include prosecuting anyone who makes a fraudulent claim.”
Filing a false claim of losses is considered a felony, according to FEMA. If convicted, a person can face a prison sentence of 5 or 10 years and up to $250,000 in fines.
“Special agents from the Office of Inspector General use a number of methods to detect fraud,” FEMA said. “An automated system cross-checks information with other agencies and insurance companies to weed out duplicate applications. Field inspections are conducted to verify losses and damages for every person who applies to FEMA for individual assistance.”
Eastman called the decision to file a claim in the first place "a blessing in disguise." Without it, she may have never found out that her information had been stolen.
“Whoever it is, I do hope they get found,” Eastman said.