By Shereen Siewert
Wausau-area families who lost a loved one to COVID-19 could be eligible for a government program launched this year that helps defray funeral expenses, but some fraudsters are already finding ways to take advantage
Up to $9,000 in benefits are possible through a program made possible by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. Under the terms of the plan, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will provide assistance for covid-related funeral expenses incurred after Jan. 20, 2020.
Krista Falkowski, a former Wausau resident who lost both her parents to COVID-19, said the funds provided a much-needed safety net for her family.
“My parents didn’t plan ahead, they didn’t see this coming,” Falkowski said. “I had to take out a loan to pay for their funerals. I can’t tell you what a relief it’s been. But it won’t bring my mom and dad back.”
Local funeral homes are helping connect families who could qualify to FEMA to apply for the funding, which is designed to pay for expenses ranging from caskets to clergy time to the use of a funeral home, headstone and burial plot. Families who lost multiple loved ones to COVID can apply for up to $35,500 total.
Peterson/Kraemer Funeral Home President Greg Zoromski said his staff has had many families asking about the program.
“Our staff has also proactively contacted families that we felt would not have access to this information or had limited resources when it came to internet access or family to help them—almost everyone had heard of the program and were gathering the required information,” Zoromski said. “All in all it seems to have been a very positive experience for families in the midst of what has been a very trying time, to say the least.”
The program is drawing an enormous amount of attention. More than a million people called FEMA in the first 90 minutes of the first day the program opened.
Due to the sensitive nature of the program, FEMA opted to register applicants by phone rather than online. More than 5,000 agents have been contracted to take calls “with a commitment to spend as much time as is needed with each applicant,” the agency spokesperson said.
Determining who qualifies can be tricky. FEMA will consider cases where COVID-19 contributed to a death but was not the immediate cause – but will not necessarily accept such applications. That is the case for many older adults. There are several categories of people who are not eligible for the relief, including foreign students and temporary work and tourist visa holders. Deaths must have occurred in the U.S. or in a U.S. territory.
The program does not have a requirement that the deceased be a U.S. citizen, noncitizen national or qualified alien.
Avoid being scammed
As you might imagine, scammers have moved in, taking advantage of families already reeling with the loss of a loved one.
“We have received reports of scammers reaching out to people offering to register them for funeral assistance. FEMA has not sent any such notifications and we do not contact people before they register for assistance,” the agency noted in a fraud alert.
FEMA will not reach out to survivors directly, agency officials said. Anyone who receives a call from someone pretending to be a FEMA agent should not disclose any information about yourself or the deceased relative, including confirming a name, birth date or Social Security number. Don’t respond to any emails or text messages from anyone claiming to be from FEMA or another federal agency.
If you are tempted to respond because the caller has some identifying information, keep in mind fraudsters often read obituaries to find their potential victims. Scammers sometimes collect enough personal information to make people believe the calls are legit. But they could have easily obtained identifying details — a partial Social Security or birth date — from the many massive data breaches that have occurred in recent years.
Survivors who fall victim to such frauds are urged to call to the agency’s helpline at 800-621-3362. Covid-related complaints can also be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline by calling 866-720-5721 or by going online at Justice.gov/Disaster-Fraud. The scam can also be reported to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.FTC.gov. FEMA recommends people file a complaint about the fraud to local law enforcement agencies, as well. To find your state’s consumer protection office, go to USA.gov/State-Consumer.
How to apply
FEMA says there is no rush or time limit to apply. Here is a list of necessary documents to apply for funding:
- An official death certificate that indicates the death “may have been caused by” or “was likely the result of” COVID-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms. The certificate should also show the death occurred in the U.S. or in a U.S. territory.
- Funeral expense documents that include the applicant’s name, deceased individual’s name, amount of funeral expenses and dates the costs were incurred. Receipts and a funeral home contract are examples of acceptable documents.
- Proof of funds received from other sources specifically for use toward funeral costs. FEMA assistance can not duplicate benefits received from burial or funeral insurance, financial assistance received from voluntary agencies; federal, state, local, tribal, territorial government programs or agencies; or other sources.
While FEMA has aided families with disaster-related burial costs in the past, the Covid-19 effort is the largest of its type.
Survivors can apply for benefits by contacting FEMA toll-free at 844-684-6333 (TTY: 800-462-7585). Multilingual services are available.