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Federal, state, local agencies work together to try to stop Joplin tornado relief fraud

June 23, 2011|edited news release

JOPLIN, Mo. -- A multi-jurisdictional task force met here on Thursday to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of fraud related to tornado disaster relief.  The meeting, organized by the FBI in Joplin and hosted by the Joplin Police Department, 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.  They 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,” said U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips. “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.

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“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 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. If you believe you have been a victim of fraud from a person or an organization soliciting relief funds on behalf of storm victims, you should contact the FBI at the 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 National Disaster Fraud Hotline, toll free, at (866) 720-5721 or the Disaster Fraud e-mail at disaster@leo.gov.  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 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.  We are committed to doing our part to ensure that those who commit fraud related to the Joplin tornado disaster are held accountable.”

In addition to representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI, other task force members who attended the meeting included representatives from the National Center for Disaster Fraud, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Jasper County Prosecutor’s Office, the Joplin Police Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development-Office of the Inspector General, the Small Business Administration, IRS – Criminal Investigation and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.  Other task force members include the U. S. Secret Service and the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office.

Phillips emphasized that her office would work closely with law enforcement at all levels, and coordinate with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and the Jasper County prosecuting attorney to ensure investigative and prosecutorial resources are used efficiently. 

A number of federal statutes could be implicated by disaster relief fraud, Phillips noted, including 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 fi! nes 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; make donations directly to known organizations, rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.

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