More COVID funeral reimbursement funds available to Chicago families, but scammers are watching

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The federal government is offering much-needed help to families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.

Families can receive up to $9,000 reimbursement for funeral costs, but navigating the process can be tricky.

The money is being offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, through the American Rescue Act. However, there may be challenges in accessing the funs.

"The challenges are, one, wait time, and calling FEMA. There's a lot of calls and FEMAL has limited staff, so it takes a while to get through to them," said Bob Smith, president of the Illinois Funeral Director Association and owner of Smith Corcoran Funeral Home on the Northwest Side. "The second part is, the second problem is collecting all the paperwork that FEMA wants. Fairly simple: funeral bill, receipt of payment for death certificate. But not everybody has that available."

There's at least 20 things on the checklist to get the money, the I-Team found, and it can be difficult for some people.

"Most of those items are pretty, pretty simple and straightforward, but there is a line of documentation that needs to be sent into FEMA and you need to send that. They prefer it all via email," Smith said.

The funeral home can help.

"We're here to help. And whatever we can do to make people go through this process easier, that's what we'll do," said Smith.

If you're applying for the money, you also have to be the person who paid for the funeral. FEMA's website says you must supply a death certificate indicating the death was COVID-19 related, but not all death certificates may state the cause. FEMA said if that's the case, you should get the certificate amended.

"We are encouraging individuals that are in that situation to work with their attending physician, to work with the local coroner in their area to amend the death certificate," said Dan Shulman, spokesman for FEMA Region 5. "And they can be amended with appropriate information. That may require securing the medical file from a hospital or other facility where the person passed away."

He said there is a waiting period to get funds as well.

"Depending on the complexity of the information that they submit, it can take anywhere from three to five weeks for us to process create that application. And then, once someone is approved, if they've opted for direct deposit for assistance, it will take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours for them to receive the funds," Shulman said.

Ed Michael Reggie, the CEO of website Funeralocity, which provides pricing for funeral and cremation providers nationwide, joined with FEMA in saying that scammers are preying on those who are eligible for funeral funding, trying to get social security numbers.

"Every funeral home in America essentially puts its obituaries on its website as a courtesy to people whose services they are handling," Reggie said. "Any scammer could comb through those websites and get the information that, you know, Mr. Smith died on this day, they could call the funeral home and maybe talk them into getting a receipt. But also, they could take that information and contact families, and then start getting social security numbers and other information."

If you've already applied for the money, know that FEMA may call you and that call may come from an unidentified number.

"FEMA may call you to ask for additional information," Shulman said. "If we do, and you're not sure that the person calling is from FEMA< we will offer verification with the application number that someone has provided. But if at any point, they're not sure that they're talking to someone from FEMA, hang up and call our toll free number."

If you're getting help from your funeral home on the application process, make sure you reach out to them.

Smith said most of his clients are applying, but not everyone wants to deal with reliving their loss.

"People are going through a grief. And this is not what they normally want to think about. And this brings the grief back, the loss back to them. So some, some people will put off applying because they don't want to deal with it at this point in their life," he said.

FEMA said it's already provided more than $278 million to 41,000 people. In Illinois, more than $13.5 million is being sent to people who have been approved.

Click here to apply for COVID funeral cost reimbursement from FEMA.
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