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A new FEMA program offers up to $9,000 to help with covid-19 funerals. Scammers see an opportunity.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/16/2021 Michelle Singletary
a group of people in a garden: A groundskeeper prepares to cover a grave after a funeral for a covid-19 victim in Apple Valley, Calif. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) © Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post A groundskeeper prepares to cover a grave after a funeral for a covid-19 victim in Apple Valley, Calif. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A particularly shameless breed of scammers is already trying to take advantage of families looking for financial help from a new government program that offers up to $9,000 to help pay for burying covid-19 victims.

Under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and American Rescue Plan Act, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing financial assistance for covid-related funeral expenses incurred after Jan. 20, 2020. As of Thursday, more than 563,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States.

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Even before the Biden administration started taking applications on Monday for the financial relief program, fraudsters were targeting potential applicants in schemes intended to steal their personal data. FEMA issued a warning reporting that scammers are reaching out to people and offering to register them for the funeral assistance program. Don’t believe these heinous people. FEMA will absolutely not be contacting applicants until they have called the agency or have already applied for assistance, the agency said.

Scammers are known to create cons based on current events, but this scheme — calling families grieving after losing a loved one to covid — is a despicable twist on the typical government impostor scam.

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Here’s an FAQ about the eligibility requirements, how to apply and what to do if you’ve been scammed.

Who can apply for the covid-19 funeral assistance program?

The person applying must be an individual who incurred funeral expenses.

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national or a qualified alien. You can apply for the funds if the deceased died in the United States or in a U.S. territory. The program does not have a requirement that the deceased be a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national or qualified alien.

There are several categories of people who are not eligible for the relief, including foreign students and temporary work and tourist visa holders.

FEMA says funeral homes are not eligible to apply on behalf of a family. The establishment also can’t be a co-applicant.

What documents do I need to show to get assistance?

You will need a death certificate that must indicate the person’s death was attributed directly or indirectly to covid-19. You must have documentation, such as receipts or a funeral home contract, proving you were responsible for the funeral expenses.


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What funeral costs are covered?

The program will help with eligible expenses for the funeral, including the cost of a casket, clergy services, the use of the funeral home, headstone and burial plot. It also covers cremation and the cost of an urn.

Also, if you shared the cost of the funeral, it’s important to note that FEMA says it will generally provide assistance to only one applicant per deceased individual. However, there can be a co-applicant.

“We recognize that multiple individuals may have contributed to funeral expenses for one deceased individual,” FEMA said in an FAQ created for the program at FEMA.gov.

It’s also possible to be reimbursed for expenses paid for multiple people who died as a result of covid.

Covid-19 funeral assistance is limited to a maximum payment of $9,000 per deceased individual and a maximum of $35,500 per applicant, per state, territory, or District of Columbia, according to a FEMA spokeswoman.

“If an applicant is responsible for funeral expenses for deceased individuals in multiple states, an application will be made for each state in which the death occurred,” the spokeswoman wrote in an email. “Thus, it is possible for an applicant to receive funeral assistance for various deceased individuals in different states.”

How can I apply for the funeral assistance program?

Survivors can apply for benefits by contacting FEMA toll-free at 844-684-6333 (TTY: 800-462-7585). Multilingual services are available.

Online applications are not being accepted. You have to call FEMA, and that has already created an issue. The agency said it is experiencing high call volume, but it urges people to keep trying if they aren’t connected right away.

The program doesn’t have a deadline.

“We will not rush through calls because we intend to make sure every applicant gets their questions answered and receives the help they need to apply,” the agency said.

What should I do if I got a call about the funeral assistance program and was scammed?

Report the incident to the agency’s helpline at 800-621-3362. Covid-related complaints can also be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline by calling 866-720-5721 or by going online at Justice.gov/Disaster-Fraud.

You should also report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.FTC.gov. FEMA recommends people file a complaint about the fraud to local law enforcement agencies, as well. To find your state’s consumer protection office, go to USA.gov/State-Consumer.

If you did not initiate a call to FEMA, do not disclose any information about yourself or the deceased relative, including confirming a name, birth date or Social Security number. Don’t respond to any emails or text messages from anyone claiming to be from FEMA or another federal agency.

If you are tempted to respond because the caller has some identifying information, keep in mind the crooks read the obituaries to find relatives of covid victims. Scammers may even have enough personal information to make people believe the calls are legit. But they could have easily obtained identifying details — a partial Social Security or birth date — from the many massive data breaches that have occurred in recent years.

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Should I file a complaint even if I didn’t fall for the con?

Report the scam, even if you weren’t victimized.

Although the agencies might not be able to address your specific case, reporting the scam helps authorities track down the scammers and may eventually lead to prosecutions.

FEMA says the agency has put in controls to mitigate the fraudulent activity, but the best offense is to be informed about how the funeral assistance program works. Even if you won’t need it, pass along the information to others who could use the help.

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