Fraudsters are posing as fisherman to con BP out of thousands of dollars in compensation for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
US authorities have arrested three people in the past week on suspicion of abusing the system designed to compensate commercial fisherman for lost business since the disaster.
The British oil giant has given more than $308 million to individuals and businesses so far but it is feared conmen are fraudulently claiming to be fishermen to receive payouts.
In order to claim compensation from BP, fishermen must prove they hold a commercial fishing license, which can be obtained from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).
The LDWF has seen a steep rise in the number of licence applications since the spill – despite many fishing grounds being closed due to the disaster. The trend is thought to be a result of fraudsters trying to milk the system.
It said it has sold 2,200 licences since oil started leaking into the sea following the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig – an increase of nearly 60 per cent on the same period last year.
Lt Col Jeff Mayne of the LDWF Law Enforcement Division says some of those licences may have been used to commit fraud.
“Originally BP was paying to cheques to just anybody who had a licence and that may have spurred some of the fraud,” he told the BBC. “There were no real checks and balances on whether they were they really commercial fishermen.
“I would like to say I’m surprised, but I’m not. It’s a lot easier to go and steal a resource than to rob a bank. I think we’ll be working items associated with this oil spill for years to come.”
Evidence of the fraudsters techniques to undermine the system have also been reported by genuine fishermen.
Oysterman Pete Vujnovich, from Barataria Bay, said he had recently been approached by two strangers asking him to sign documents saying they had worked for him.
“Of course, I didn’t sign,” he said. “Some of the other boat captains have been offered a thousand dollars to sign a piece of paper vouching for other people.”
BP admitted it is “likely” that its compensation scheme had been abused by fraudsters.
Allen Carpenter, one of BP’s regional managers in charge of the 14 claims centres in the Louisiana, said: “There will likely be some fraudsters who made it through the initial process and received dollars.
“It’s the verification we’re going to go through and the special handling of those claims as they move forward in which those individuals are going to be caught.”
BP has a special unit currently investigating several hundred cases of possible fraud. Adjusters in claims centres around Louisiana have also been warned to be on the lookout.
Mr Carpenter added that some degree of fraud is inevitable. He said he investigated fraud cases after Hurricane Katrina, which cost authorities billions of dollars.
He said: “Probably about 10 per cent of the claims filed after any major event can be looked at as fraudulent or potentially fraudulent.
“It brings out the unscrupulous people who see it as an opportunity to take advantage of the goodwill of others.”
By Murray Wardrop
Published: 11:18AM BST 12 Aug 2010
Source: The Telegraph