Even before a U.S. government program offering financial help to bury people who died of COVID-19, scam artists were on the prowl, offering would-be applicants help in registering for up to $9,000 from Uncle Sam.
Fraudsters looking to steal personal data have been targeting potential applicants, offering to register them for the program, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We have received reports of scammers reaching out to people offering to register them for funeral assistance. FEMA has not sent any such notifications and we do not contact people before they register for assistance," the agency noted in a fraud alert.
Anyone who did not call FEMA should not reveal any information about themselves or their deceased relative, including confirming a name, date of birth or Social Security number, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Also don't reply to emails or texts from anyone claiming to be from FEMA or any other government agency, the FTC said.
The warning from FEMA came as the agency was inundated with more than a million calls regarding the funeral expenses program, which launched Monday.
"The first day we opened up, there was definitely congestion on the line," Acting FEMA Director Bob Fenton told lawmakers on the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday. "The second day was better than the first day. And I'm sure today will be much better than yesterday."
The agency is providing up to $9,000 per funeral and up to $35,500 per applicant to help with expenses related to coronavirus deaths that occurred after January 20, 2020. COVID-19 has killed more than 565,000 Americans, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
FEMA decided to register people over the phone rather than online to add a human element to a sensitive process, Fenton told lawmakers. "We want to make sure that we empathetically and compassionately help everyone that had a loss," he said.
While waiting for the agency's hotline to clear, the agency encourages would-be applicants to start gathering the following information:
For more information about the program, visit COVID-19 Funeral Assistance | FEMA.gov.
The economic rescue package passed by Congress in December included $2 billion for FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to offer assistance to "an individual or household to meet disaster-related funeral expenses" incurred through December 31, 2020. The government should cover 100% of the funeral costs, according to the measure.