Woman pleads guilty to disaster fraud


Staff Writer

Saturday, May 25, 2019

A Rocky Mount woman has pleaded guilty in federal court to disaster fraud related to Hurricane Matthew.

Sheila Ruffin, 50, admitted to guilt in 15 counts of disaster fraud related to the storm's recovery effort conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ruffin was awarded more than $11,000 in rental assistance to which she was not entitled by making false statements and representations and submitting fraudulent documentation in connection with applications for federal disaster assistance from Jan. 31, 2017, to Jan. 29, 2018.

The plea deal results were announced earlier this week by Robert Higdon Jr., the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. Assistant U.S. Attorney Toby Lathan prosecuted the case for the government.

Anyone who suspects fraud involving disaster relief efforts or believes they have been the victim of fraud from a person or organization soliciting relief funds on behalf of disaster victims should contact the National Disaster Fraud Hotline toll free at 866-720-5721. The telephone line is staffed by live operators 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The U.S. Department of Justice established the National Center for Disaster Fraud to investigate, prosecute and deter fraud in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when billions of dollars in federal disaster relief poured into the Gulf Coast region. Its mission has expanded to include suspected fraud from any natural or manmade disaster. More than 30 federal, state, and local agencies participate in the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which allows the center to act as a centralized clearinghouse of information related to disaster relief fraud.

The public should remember to perform due diligence before giving contributions to anyone soliciting donations or individuals offering to provide assistance to those affected by the hurricane and tornadoes. Solicitations can originate from social media, e-mails, websites, door-to-door collections, flyers, mailings, telephone calls and other similar methods.

Before making a donation of any kind, consumers should adhere to certain guidelines, including:

■ Do not respond to any unsolicited (spam) incoming emails, including clicking links contained within those messages, because they may contain computer viruses.

■ Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as members of charitable organizations or officials asking for donations via e-mail or social networking sites.

■ Beware of organizations with copy-cat names similar to but not exactly the same as those of reputable charities.

■ Rather than follow a purported link to a website, verify the legitimacy of nonprofit organizations by utilizing various Internet-based resources that may assist in confirming the group’s existence and its nonprofit status.

■ Be cautious of emails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders.

■ To ensure contributions are received and used for intended purposes, make contributions directly to known organizations rather than relying on others to make the donation on your behalf.

■ Do not be pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use such tactics.

■ Be aware of whom you are dealing with when providing your personal and financial information.

■ Providing such information may compromise your identity and make you vulnerable to identity theft.

■ Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by credit card or write a check directly to the charity. Do not make checks payable to individuals.

■ Legitimate charities do not normally solicit donations via money transfer services. Most legitimate charities’ websites end in .org rather than .com.