Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Debit cards issued to Hurricane Katrina evacuees have been used to purchase luxury or entertainment items.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2005]
Origins: Through its disaster management agency FEMA, the federal government issued more than 10,000 debit cards to Hurricane Katrina refugees in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Each card carried a monetary value of $2,000. While the only overtly stated restrictions on their use prohibited the purchase of alcohol, tobacco or firearms, recipients were required to sign an agreement promising to use the cards only for disaster recovery purposes; that is, expenses related to the process of rebuilding their lives.
While the intent of the novel program was to quickly thrust money into the hands of those left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and in need of ready cash with which to meet living expenses, not everyone who received debit cards kept their purchases in line with the spirit of the program's purpose. At least some of the cards were used to buy luxury or entertainment items.
One of the first news outlets to report on abuse of these financial instruments was the New York Daily News, who broke the story that two of the cards had been used in Atlanta to buy $800 Louis Vuitton handbags. (That claim has been substantiated by MSNBC's Abrams Report; the store confirmed to them that it happened.) Others have been spotted in adult entertainment venues — according to a report by KPRC
Syndicated radio talk show host
How many of the cards have been misused is unknown at this point, but
While the FEMA-issued card program has been brought to an end, the American Red Cross continues to give out debit cards, called Client Assistance Cards. Like FEMA's program, each disaster victim must agree to use the cards for emergency needs, such as food, housing, and clothing. Those too have been abused; for example, Red Cross records show one was used for entertainment items at a Best Buy (a computers, stereos, TVs, and other electronics store) in Kentucky for more than $1,000.
It's likely some of the abuse was the doing of scam artists who fleeced evacuees of the cards issued them. Some Katrina evacuees were told by unscrupulous merchants they had to use the full value encoded into their cards in one shot or lose it — these merchants would then offer to buy the unused portion for cash at a reduced rate. Others were approached by individuals claiming to be FEMA representatives who demanded they hand their cards over to them, saying the cards had to be returned.
We can't answer the larger question in the back of everyone's minds — have most evacuees used the cash and resources handed them wisely and well, with the abuse limited to a mere handful of refugees, or has the exploitation of people's goodwill been widespread, with the "wisely and well" crowd in the distinct minority? It's a troubling question to have to go unanswered, because Americans are not going to open their wallets to the Red Cross nearly as readily or be as supportive of FEMA if they've strong reason to suspect the money they drained from their households to assist victims of disasters (either as direct donations or through their taxes) is going for big-ticket items they themselves can't afford for their own families or is being tucked into someone's
Barbara "bared necessities" Mikkelson
Last updated: 23 October 2005
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