Vt. pandemic rental assistance officials tout anti-fraud record

Published: Jun. 14, 2023 at 6:20 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program is coming to an end this month and officials say weeding out fraud and identity theft in the pandemic-era programs has been a top priority.

The VERAP program has paid out more than $170 million in rental and utility assistance to some 17,000 households since it began three years ago.

“It’s been a lifesaver for families and landlords over the past three years,” said Kathleen Berk with the Vermont State Housing Authority, the organization that administers the program.

When VERAP was launched, Berk says there was an uptick in fraudulent applications. “We had to take a step back and modify our policies,” she said.

Out of nearly 34,000 total applications received, over 5,700 were denied for possible fraud. Berk says $142,000 was paid out to fraudulent claims, fewer than one percent of VERAP’s total payout.

VERAP also had to deal with identity theft claims. Just this week, WCAX confirmed two fraudulent applications to VERAP -- one targeting a renter and another targeting a property manager who had their entire identity stolen. Both declined to be interviewed.

Berk says 11 people have been victims of identity theft in the program’s three-year history, leading to payouts of over $192,000. She says no personal data has been leaked from the program. “Identity theft is not something that we can control. It is really someone who has your information who is able to pose as you,” she said.

Experts say most fraudulent activity and identity theft comes from sophisticated overseas organizations using stolen identities to send money to offshore bank accounts. When there is fraud, the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s office, and Vt. Attorney General are notified.

“That often inspires us to take a different course of action or investigate a company or advocate for legislation here at the Statehouse,” said Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark.

Experts say it’s a good reminder for all of us to think about where we’re sharing our data. “There’s always going to be risk. We have let the genie out of the bottle to live in an online environment where we exchange information for convenience and expediency,” said Matthew Bovee, a computer science professor at Norwich University.

An important lesson that no matter where Vermonters share personal information, they should stop, think, authenticate, and verify.

VERAP ends at the end of the month.

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