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Phony Pilot Busted for Katrina Fraud

Busted for Katrina Fraud
The Case of the Phony Pilot


Flooded street after Hurricane Katrina

When it came to launching a Hurricane Katrina fraud, this Florida scam artist wasted no time. His scheme was underway a day before the storm even reached landfall in Louisiana. Poetic justice, then, that he was the first person arrested on federal charges for Katrina-related Internet fraud.

Here's how the scheme played out:

On August 28, he posted messages to an online message board claiming he was a pilot who just evacuated "political figures" from Louisiana. He then emailed one board member separately, claiming he had received "special clearance" to land at Barksdale Air Force Base because he had worked in the White House as an advisor to four different presidents and had served aboard Air Force One.

The next day, the con artist—who also claimed he was an Air Force veteran and a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent—was back on the online board, saying he was recruiting more pilots to help him transport medical supplies to the devastated area and to rescue critical care patients. He and the other pilots would pay for the missions out of their own pockets, he claimed, including up to $4,000 in jet fuel for each round trip.

Wanting to assist in any way they could, members of the online board helped the "good Samaritan" launch a website—www.airkatrina.com—to solicit donations to cover fuel costs. Suggested donations ranged from $100 for a partial tank of jet fuel to $3,000 for a full tank. "Every dollar, every nickel," the con artist claimed, "will go directly into the tanks of these pilots' planes on their mission of mercy."

He laid it on thick, posting descriptions on the new web site describing his alleged non-stop missions to hurricane-stricken areas. He'd seen dogs wrapped in live electrical lines. He'd transported a critically ill 7-month-old girl to South Florida for transplant surgery. He'd flown his plane alongside Air Force One and both planes had "tipped wings" over Louisiana. The stories were so compelling that in just two days he'd collected some $40,000 from 49 people in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Hong Kong. One contributor alone donated $20,000.

Fortunately, the online payment service the con artist used to collect donations began to question the web site's legitimacy. It contacted the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center. We quickly opened an investigation and arrested the man on October 3 on four counts of wire fraud. As our investigation revealed, the man wasn't a pilot and had made up everything to fill his own pockets.

But we're just getting started. We've arrested over two dozen individuals for Katrina-related fraud so far, and more investigations are underway. If you think you've been victimized by a Katrina internet scam, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. We will not tolerate individuals who fraudulently take advantage of hurricanes and other disasters, and we will thoroughly investigate any alleged criminal activity.

Resources: Beware Hurricane Katrina Relief Scams | E-Scams & Warnings

Photo courtesy of FEMA.