Maryland Man Stole 2017 Hurricane Victims’ Identities to Get Disaster Funds, Secret Service Says

A Maryland man is charged with a scheme to use the deadly 2017 hurricanes to pocket taxpayer money. Tare Okirika stole identities of Hurricane Harvey and Irma victims and used the information to register for and personally collect federal disaster assistance payouts, according to an affidavit filed by a U.S. Secret Service agent.

The scheme involved other conspirators and used the stolen identities of hurricane victims from Florida, Georgia and Texas, according to the affidavit. The conspirators are accused of taking tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money through the scheme. Investigators found Okirika and other suspects in the scheme were in possession with stolen Social Security numbers and account information of the victims.

Okirika is accused of using the identities of those victims to register and load pre-paid Green Dot gift cards with federal disaster assistance payouts. The cards were purchased at Dollar Tree stores in Capitol Heights and Bowie, Maryland, among other locations, according to court filings. The filings said Okirika withdrew cash from the cards at Walmart cash centers in Columbia, Pasadena and Severn, Maryland.

An attorney for Okirika declined to comment.

The scheme used the stolen identities to claim Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal disaster payouts in the days immediately after Hurricane Harvey and Irma in September 2017, according to the affidavit.

According to court filings, "Okirika maintained a Bank of America account that appeared only to operate as a funnel account for the receipt of money orders written with funds from the [Green Dot] cards, or to cash out wire transfers received by Okirika."

The Secret Service and FEMA did not immediately return requests for comment.

FEMA makes federal financial aid available to disaster victims, including those impacted by hurricanes. FEMA's policy for aid says, “Disaster assistance may include grants to help pay for temporary housing, emergency home repairs, uninsured and underinsured personal property losses and medical, dental and funeral expenses caused by the disaster, along with other serious disaster-related expenses."

The FEMA policy guidance, which is posted on the agency’s website, says FEMA inspectors will make arrangements to survey damage for those who claim federal aid. The Secret Service affidavit in Okirika’s case does not specify if or how damage inspections were averted in the alleged scheme.

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