LANCASTER, Pa. — More than 70 phony applications.
Justin Eby, the executive director of the Lancaster County Housing & Redevelopment Authorities, and his team had to sort through them.
The fraudulent authors were looking for financial gain from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) in Lancaster County.
Eby says there were 8,000 applications submitted, and the 70-plus fake ones stood out for all the wrong reasons.
"We're starting to see applications that don't appear to be legitimate as far as multiple applications submitted by landlords that don't exist using the online property assessment website here," Eby said. "...[Fraudsters are] just pulling a random property saying they're the landlord and making up tenants that don't exist."
ERAP was created to help renters dealing with financial challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the program will now no longer offer an online application.
Eby said the ease of submitting online, with little to no barriers to check for fraud, became an issue.
"We're going to be changing...to more of a referral system," he said. "The problem we were having was everyone would submit online the information needed to get into the program, but [the] lack of lease [and] lack of financial documentation...just didn't allow us to understand the real need so that we can continue to keep our program open."
Now, the portal for first-time applicants will close on April 15. Those who have already submitted will still be able to access the portal to check on their application's progress.
Now, concerns are arising around accessibility for those looking for assistance since they'll be required to meet in person — something Eby is well aware of.
“We're putting other steps in the place and not trying to create barriers...there will be the ability to go to maybe 10 other locations in the county," he noted. “By shifting to more of a referral and filtering applications up front, we’ll still be assisting people applying...and then meet with them to determine their eligibility."
Eby said the Lancaster County Housing & Redevelopment Authorities are shifting the organization's remaining funds and major focus to preventing evictions. However, it will still welcome applications for those who need help with rent.
As for the fake applications? Eby said he doesn't believe any fraudulent claims were paid out: "We're looking into which ones that we flagged [or] any that we've paid out, but we do a pretty good job of catching that up front."