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Dozens indicted in alleged Katrina scam

Red Cross contract workers accused of filing false claims

FBI Special Agent Javier Colon said many of those indicted have admitted they have never been to Louisiana.


Red Cross
Disaster Relief
Hurricane Katrina

(CNN) -- Forty-nine people have been indicted in a scam to pocket Red Cross hurricane relief funds and more indictments are expected, according to Justice Department officials.

Authorities said 22 people working for a Red Cross contractor at a call center in Bakersfield, California, filed false claims, and by involving family members and friends, brought the number of people under indictment to 49.

"I'm really surprised people in this day and time would try to take advantage of the system that's intended to help those in need," said Jackie Smith, whose brother-in-law was named in the indictment on charges of wire fraud.

Officials said they planned to widen the investigation.

"Our investigation is going to be expanded to include other parts of California and other states, and there are thousands of claims made in other states," FBI Special Agent Javier Colon said.

McGregor Scott, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, said about $200,000 in lost funds had been traced to the 49 people indicted, and that the total is expected to reach between $300,000 and $400,000.

"We anticipate in the coming weeks and months that we will indict a large number of people, perhaps even doubling the present number," Scott said.

Scott said most of the indictments involve charges of wire fraud, and the possible penalties for convictions will depend on the degree to which the person was involved in the scam, the amount of money the suspect netted and their prior criminal record.

"We are going to ensure that the courts order restitution in the full amounts that were stolen from good-hearted American citizens who were simply donating to the Red Cross to help their fellow citizens in a time of need," Scott said.

Alleged scheme

The Bakersfield claim center processed calls from up to 16,000 people a day who were scattered across the country after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast in August.

Red Cross workers said that because of the volume of calls, people were asked to provide only their name, address and birth date.

Call center agents would then have to confirm and approve those details before issuing a claim number, so the evacuees could receive payment at local Western Union outlets -- $360 for individuals and more than $1,500 for families.

Officials accuse the contract workers under indictment of tapping into the system by creating fake accounts.

Suspicious Red Cross employees called the FBI to investigate after an audit found a disproportionate number of disbursements for evacuees going to the Bakersfield region, thousands of miles away from the area ravaged by Katrina.

One Western Union store manager said an employee grew suspicious when the same person came in three times to collect money.

"She was the one who found out," he said. "She contacted the authorities."

Assistant U.S. attorney Jonathan Conklin told CNN that scams are a fact of life, even in such dire circumstances as the wake of Katrina.

"Unfortunately, the fraud schemes are ever-present, and in this case, while we hoped no one would be willing to take advantage of the situation, people have," Conklin said.

Colon said he was surprised by the number of confessions authorities obtained.

"In many cases they've openly admitted that they have never been to the state of Louisiana and they were never entitled to the money," Colon said.

Red Cross: Safeguards weren't enough

The Red Cross had safeguards in place after Katrina, but "they were not fully adequate," spokesman Steve Cooper said.

He told CNN that the group was aware after Katrina that "there was some small possibility of fraud" in the system for distributing funds.

"We put the appropriate safeguards in place as best we could," Cooper said. "But we made the decision to take that risk in order to help as many people as possible."

Cooper said that about 4,000 cases of assistance out of 1.4 million were being investigated, involving about $400,000 of the $1.4 billion the Red Cross distributed.

Both figures represented a "small percentage" of the totals, he said.

The Red Cross said it is devising new systems with the help of the FBI and Secret Service so that such fraud will be easier to detect in the future.

"Should we ever find ourselves with a disaster of the scope and complexity of a Hurricane Katrina," Cooper said, "the American public can continue its high level of confidence that the American Red Cross will protect the funds that we receive and will properly distribute those."

CNN's Kareen Wynter contributed to this report.

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