An Illinois woman mourns her two young daughters, swept to their deaths in Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters. It's a tragic and terrifying story. It's also a lie.
An Alabama woman applies for disaster aid for hurricane damage. She files 28 claims for addresses in four states. It's all a sham.
Two California men help stage Internet auctions designed to help Katrina relief organizations. Those, too, are bogus.
More than 18 months after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast, authorities are chipping away at a mountain of fraud cases that, by some estimates, involve thousands of people who bilked the federal government and charities out of hundreds of millions of dollars intended to aid storm victims.
The full scope of Katrina fraud may never be known, but this much is clear: It stretches far beyond the Gulf Coast, like the hurricane evacuees themselves. So far, more than 600 people have been charged in federal cases in 22 states - from Florida to Oregon - and the District of Columbia.
The frauds range in value from a few thousand dollars to more than $700,000. Complaints are still pouring in and several thousand possible cases are in the pipeline - enough work to keep authorities busy for five to eight years, maybe more.
"The reason we're seeing such widespread fraud is individuals were evacuated to all 50 states. Katrina was a national phenomenon," says David Dugas, U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, La., and director of a command center that's part of a special Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. "Everybody knew what was going on. Therefore, criminals knew what was going on."
Major disasters and fraud frequently go hand in hand. It happened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Andrew's devastating sweep through Florida in 1992. People tried to cash in, falsely claiming to be victims.
After Katrina, the same thing happened: Disaster aid was sent to inmates who applied from prison and to people who claimed property damage and provided addresses of vacant lots or cemeteries, among many abuses documented in Government Accountability Office reports.
"We found several dozen schemes. There are probably a lot more out there," says Gregory Kutz, a GAO investigator who has testified about Katrina fraud six times on Capitol Hill. "The real clever ones cover their trail and disappear and they'll never be caught."
GAO undercover investigators demonstrated how easy it was to cheat the system: Using phony names, Social Security numbers and addresses of damaged residences - such as the 13th floor of a two-story building - they still received several checks.