Small numbers of fraud cases slow emergency rental assistance process

In a handful of cases, federally funded emergency rental assistance programs in metro Atlanta have been defrauded by people posing as landlords or as tenants facing eviction due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities allege that fraudsters falsified documents and some committed identity theft to receive emergency rental assistance funds they were not entitled to. Program managers have caught and rejected hundreds more fishy applications without issuing payments.

The state’s largest counties and the city of Atlanta have disbursed hundreds of millions of the grant-funded dollars combined, saving tens of thousands of people from eviction or utility disconnection. The numbers of even potentially fraudulent applications are a small fraction of the total pool. But program administrators say the fraud cases create a conflict between quickly meeting urgent needs and carefully protecting the funding from swindlers.

“We’re all concerned that it is federal funds and we will be held responsible for these missing pieces,” said Protip Biswas, vice president of homelessness for the United Way of Greater Atlanta. “We’re under pressure from both sides, but the family that’s in desperate need, that’s being evicted, needs it now.”

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The United Way administers Atlanta’s emergency rental assistance program. Applications are now closed, but applicants were required to present several documents, including proof of COVID-19′s impact on their finances. Landlords had to provide leases and ledgers, Biswas said.

Some applications were denied because people had informal lease agreements. Some did not have documented proof that COVID-19 contributed to their hardship. Many applications were incomplete and contained mistakes, but Biswas said it was unclear whether applicants had fraudulent intent. No fraudulent applications were paid that Biswas knows of, but the city has not audited the program for fraud, he said.

“I know how desperate people get when their homes are at risk and so they will say anything, they will write anything,” he said. “I’d like to think that because of these multiple reviews, this process is solid.”

By contrast, seven people have been charged with defrauding the emergency rental assistance program in Hall County, including theft by deception charges and one count of false statements and writings, according to the sheriff’s office. At least three suspects falsely posed as landlords or tenants, the sheriff’s office said in news releases.

Hall County’s contractor for emergency rental assistance, the Texas-based crisis management firm Witt O’Brien’s, said it became aware of some fraud through “prevention practices” that a spokesman declined to describe. The county also received tips from the public.

Witt O’Brien’s declined to say how much emergency rental assistance money was given to scammers. The company spokesman said staff received additional training on fraud prevention and the fraud policy was enhanced after cases were reported, but he declined to say how.

While other jurisdictions faltered in distributing money, Gwinnett County got so much out last fall that its program was recognized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury as a top performer. Officials deliberately set a low barrier for applications — no more than the federal government required — with the philosophy that more conditions would deter many tenants facing COVID-related hardship.

Wells Fargo Bank contacted the county in December to report someone had created an account to receive emergency rental assistance funds and then immediately closed it, the county’s Grants Director, Shannon Candler, said. That prompted the county to audit more than 400 applications and discover nearly $300,000 had been given to four fake landlords, including $103,000 in one case.

In that case, Gwinnett police charged Charles Shavers and Kayla O’Kelley with three counts of computer forgery and one count of theft each — a total of eight felonies. In all four cases, the suspects fabricated documents claiming to own properties to which they had no connection, said Gwinnett Police Cpl. Ryan Winderweedle. Two of the cases were referred to the Atlanta Police Department, Winderweedle said.

HomeFirst Gwinnett, which administers the county’s emergency rental assistance program, began checking applications against the tax commissioner’s property records and training staff to identify potentially fraudulent documents, according to the audit. More than 200 applications were denied as of earlier this month for failing to meet fraud prevention standards, said Matthew Elder, who directed HomeFirst Gwinnett before heading up the county’s new housing division.

The fraudulent payments represent less than half of one percent of the money that has helped more than 16,000 people in Gwinnett, said Elder.

“We’re disappointed to have fraud,” he said, “but we’re confident...that we’ll continue to be able to serve the members of our community who are negatively affected by COVID-19.”

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Between two rounds of funding, the federal government gave nearly $1 billion for emergency rental assistance to Georgia. The state passed some of it to local governments but runs its own Georgia Rental Assistance Program with the rest. Deputy Commissioner for Housing Tonya Cureton Curry declined to answer questions about fraud in the program.

A September 2021 investigation by the office of state Inspector General Scott McAfee concluded that one emergency rental assistance application used a stolen driver’s license in a case of identity theft and two other applicants asked for rent money for properties they owned. Nothing was paid to any of them, according to the investigation report, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained through an open records request.

Fulton County is investigating more than 100 cases for potential fraud, said Pamela Roshell, chief operating officer for health, human services and public works. Some of the applications under investigation were paid, but in total the cases represent four-tenths of a percent of the total application pool, she said.

“What we often find is that constituents aren’t necessarily trying to commit fraud,” she said. “Some of them, once we dig deeper into the case, really have a misunderstanding of the eligibility requirements.”

Representatives of Clayton, Cobb and DeKalb counties said they were not aware of any successful scams in their emergency rental assistance programs. Officials said they had denied applications where fraud was suspected, but did not keep track of how many.

In DeKalb, the application process includes phone calls to landlords and tenants and a mediation meeting with county representatives, said Sharon Baker, who manages the county’s Tenant-Landlord Assistance Coalition.

“Yeah, we may have been slow and detailed, but we were thorough in checking and verifying and going through all these stages to make sure the program helped and benefited those it was designed to help and benefit,” she said.