Remember the warnings after Katrina struck, that thousands of phony Web sites had cropped up, pretending to raise money for hurricane relief? Since then, it turns out that federal prosecutors have charged just one person with running such an Internet scam, out of the roughly 70 indicted for fraud since early September.
The one Internet case, brought last month in Florida, is a doozy. Federal agents accuse a man of pulling in nearly $40,000 by soliciting contributions on a Web site, claiming to be a pilot flying relief supplies into the hardest hit areas. On his "Air Katrina" site, prosecutors say, Gary Kraser posted emotional and vivid-sounding accounts, purportedly from his own experiences flying supplies in and victims out: "I saw people on their roofs. I'm so sorry I couldn't do more. I'm shaking as I write this, crying and hugging my dog next to me now. I will hear these screams for the rest of my life."
Pretty good trick, investigators say, for a guy who didn't even have a pilot's license and never got closer to the scene than his apartment in Aventura, Fla.
Nearly all of those charged with hurricane fraud are accused of posing as victims who lost homes or property. Most of them have been indicted for filing phony claims with FEMA, though 30 are accused of running a scam in Bakersfield, Calif. that hit up the Red Cross call center there by making phony claims. Two others are charged with pretending to be Red Cross volunteers and soliciting disaster relief contributions outside a storefront in California.
State prosecutors have brought some Internet scam charges of their own, but only a handful of cases have been filed. Federal officials say many of the web scams originated overseas, making prosecution here all but impossible.