49 charged in Red Cross hurricane fund scams
Suspects helped friends, family file false claims totaling at least $200,000


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Updated: 8:05 a.m. ET Dec. 28, 2005

FRESNO, Calif. - Forty-nine people have been indicted in a scheme that bilked thousands of dollars from a Red Cross fund designated for Hurricane Katrina victims, federal authorities said.

At least 14 suspects worked at a Red Cross call center in Bakersfield and are accused of helping family and friends file false claims for aid money, said Mary Wenger, a spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott in Sacramento. Six have pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges, she said.

The fake claims drained at least $200,000 from the fund, with an average payout of about $1,000, Red Cross spokeswoman Devorah Goldburg said. The total could rise as the investigation continues.

The Bakersfield site is the largest of three Red Cross centers set up to handle hurricane calls. Others are located in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Falls Church, Va. Operators provided qualifying victims with a personal identification number they then presented to receive aid funds from Western Union, authorities said.

The Red Cross contacted the FBI after it performed an audit of the call center and discovered an unusually high number of claims were being paid out at Western Union outlets in the Bakersfield area. None of the indicted employees worked directly for the Red Cross.

Officials with Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Spherion, which operates the call center, have said the company didn’t have time to run background checks on its 1,200 workers.

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