In Maryland - far from where the California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck - a group of residents managed to scam the federal government out of $8 million in relief funds designated for those who needed it most, according to prosecutors.
The money was supposed to be for those who needed to rebuild their lives.
In the wake of massive hurricanes and wildfires that pummeled the United States in recent years, the federal government made relief funds available for those who found themselves uprooted amid the rubble of charred or washed-out homes.
But in Maryland - far from where the California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck - a group of residents managed to scam the federal government out of $8 million in relief funds designated for those who needed it most, according to prosecutors. Members of the group, prosecutors allege, were part of a scheme that stole the identity of disaster victims and applied for victim benefits - to pay their own rents, buy cars or make personal purchases.
"While many come forward in the wake of disasters to help selflessly, some use disasters to enrich themselves through theft and fraud," U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert Hur said in a statement Friday announcing the arrest of two men in the alleged conspiracy.
John Irogho, 38, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, has been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to federal prosecutors. Odinaka Ekeocha, 33, of Laurel, Maryland, has been charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering. Their arrests come a few weeks after another Maryland man, Tare Stanley Okirika, 30, of Laurel, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy, admitting that he fraudulently obtained government benefits to pay his rent and for other expenses, according to court documents.
Online records did not list an attorney for Ekeocha, and an attorney for Okirika did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Udy Ubom, an attorney for Irogho, declined to comment. Irogho had been scheduled to appear for a detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt on Monday, but the proceeding was postponed.
The scheme relied heavily on "Green Dot" prepaid cards, according to prosecutors and court records. Those eligible for emergency benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency could opt to claim the funding through the cards that can be purchased at local grocery or convenience stores and registered to receive cash, court documents state.
Between 2016 and 2018, the group filed false claims for disaster relief and purchased hundreds of Green Dot cards to claim the money using the stolen identities of victims impacted by various disasters around the country, the government said. The documents do not detail how the stolen identities were obtained.
At least 16 victims from California, Georgia, Florida and Texas were listed in Okirika's case, according to his indictment. Investigators with the U.S. Secret Service said he used some of the fraudulently obtained money to buy cars and ship them to Nigeria.
After the cards contained funds, members of the group cashed out the cards and tried to obscure where the money went by using multiple bank accounts or using various names and entities to create money orders, prosecutors allege.