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Gulf oil spill: Are con artists posing as fishermen to scam BP?

As many as 10 percent of claims submitted to BP following the Gulf oil spill may be fraudulent. BP has refined its claims process with an eye toward greater verification.

By Staff Writer / August 16, 2010

Shrimpers haul in their catch in Bastian Bay, near Empire, La., on the first day of shrimping season since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Monday. BP is investigating reports that its claims process, following the Gulf oil spill, has been the target of scam artists.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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BP is investigating reports that its claims process, in which thousands of business owners affected by the oil spill have applied for damages, has been the target of scam artists.

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In some instances, people have posed as fishermen to receive checks from BP. In others, swindlers masquerading as BP employees have tried to convince Gulf Coast residents to give them personal financial information.

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries first alerted BP of the possible fraud.

It reported that commercial fishing license applications spiked after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion. According to the agency’s law enforcement division, 2,200 licenses were sold after the blast, a 60 percent increase compared to the same period last year, despite the closure of federal fishing waters in the Gulf of Mexico following the oil spill.

A commercial fishing license is the main document needed to qualify for a BP claim. So far, BP has approved 103,900 payments totaling $319 million.

BP's claims process system has been refined with an eye toward making the process harder for cheaters.

Allen Carpenter, the corporate compliance manager for Worley Catastrophe Response, BP’s subcontractor that is handling claims in the area, suspects that at least 10 percent of the claims filed since the beginning of the disaster are probably fraudulent.

Mr. Worley said the company is notifying its claims adjusters to be on the lookout for fraud.

The company has the authority to approve payments in $5,000 increments and any payment above that amount requires direct approval from BP.

Ken Feinberg, a government-appointed administrator who will control the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund, will take over the claims process on Aug. 23.

Not only does BP suspect fraudulent claims, but it reports that some legitimate boat captains have been offered as much as $1,000 by people seeking signed paperwork to show they are members of a commercial fishing crew.

Mr. Carpenter says disasters like the oil spill “brings out the unscrupulous people who see it as an opportunity to take advantage of the goodwill of others.”

BP is also warning Gulf Coast residents of reports of people going door-to-door posing as oil company employees who are collecting personal information, or attempting to charge money for training related to spill-response employment.

Mike Utsler, chief operating officer for BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization, said in a statement released Saturday that “any data required for the claims process, employment opportunities or other matters is accepted only at BP claims centers and through authorized BP employees or representatives.”

The Federal Trade Commission issued warnings in early May of fraudulent solicitations for money via e-mail, mailings, phone calls, and the doorstep.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation said reports of oil spill fraud should be directed to a hotline operated by the National Center for Disaster Fraud, which was created to investigate and prosecute fraud related to Hurricane Katrina.

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