Cameroonian Operator Charged in Fraudulent Online “Puppy Scam” that Exploited the COVID-19 Pandemic

A criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Pittsburgh charges Desmond Fodje Bobga for his alleged involvement in a puppy fraud scheme perpetrated against American consumers.  Fodje Bobga, 27, is a citizen of Cameroon who is in Romania on a visa to attend a university there. 

He is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, forging a seal of the U.S. Supreme Court, and aggravated identity theft.  Fodje Bobga has been arrested.  A website that was used in the online puppy fraud scheme, www.lovelyhappypuppy.com, is already deleted.  

“The Department of Justice is committed to deterring and disrupting schemes, especially transnational ones, that take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic for financial gain by victimizing consumers,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Bossert Clark for the Civil Division.  “We are grateful to our partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Pennsylvania and the FBI for working hard to shut down this fraud scheme and to punish criminals who seek to exploit American’s fondness for animals.”

“The dog adoption market can be a breeding ground for catfish schemes.  Fodje Bogda and his co-conspirators exploited a national pandemic — and the social isolation it engendered — to exploit victims with photos of cute puppies and to bilk extra costs under the pretense of COVID,” said U.S. Attorney Scott W. Brady for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  “With the holiday season upon us, and the desire for companionship higher than ever, don’t fall prey to scammers selling pets online: do your research and verify.”

“Unfortunately, the pandemic has created the perfect condition for unscrupulous pet sellers to thrive,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Michael Christman.  “This suspect exploited this website to sell puppies and capitalized on people looking for companion animals online during this difficult time.  The FBI has a long arm and an even longer reach and no matter where these scammers are, we will stop at nothing to make sure they don’t get away with victimizing American citizens.”

According to the unsealed affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, from around June 2018 to the present, Fodje Bobga knowingly conspired with others to offer puppies and other animals for sale on Internet websites, including lovelyhappypuppy.com.  He and others communicated by text message and email with potential victims to induce pet purchases.  Following each purchase, Fodje Bobga and the co-conspirators claimed that a transportation company would deliver the puppy or other animal and provided a false tracking number for the pet.  Fodje Bobga and his co-conspirators, acting as the transportation company, then claimed the pet transport was delayed and that the victim needed to pay additional money for delivery of the pet. 

More recently, Fodje Bobga and the co-conspirators told some victims that they needed to pay even more money for delivery because the pet had been exposed to the coronavirus.  The perpetrators used false and fraudulent promises and documents regarding shipping fees and coronavirus exposure to extract successive payments from victims.  Among the fake documents were a “refundable crate and vaccine guarantee document” that purported to have been issued by the “Supreme Court of the United States of America” and bore the seal of the court, along with the signature of a Clerk of the Court.  After Fodje Bobga and the co-conspirators received money directly and indirectly through wire communications from the victims, Fodje Bobga and the co-conspirators never delivered the pets.

The affidavit and criminal complaint detail the alleged dealings of Fodje Bobga and his co-conspirators with six victims in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere who were seeking to purchase a puppy.  According to the affidavits and criminal complaint:

  • Victim 1, of New Brighton, Pennsylvania, was seeking to purchase a mini-dachshund puppy for her mother in mid-March of 2020.  Victim 1 was induced to lose $9,100 due to false claims that the puppy was being shipped, needed insurance, and was exposed to COVID-19;
  • Victim 2 of Fruitland, Iowa, was seeking to purchase a mini dachshund puppy for herself in mid-March of 2020.  False claims induced Victim 2 to lose $1,840;
  • Victim 3 of Marion Center, Pennsylvania, was seeking to purchase a teacup Chihuahua and paid $600.  Victim 3 became suspicious when asked for an additional $800 for shipping.  Fodje Bobga allegedly provided a false Refundable Crate and Vaccine Guarantee Document, purported to have been issued by and containing the seal of the Supreme Court of the United States, in an attempt to induce Victim 3 to pay the additional charges.  Victim 3 lost $600;
  • Victim 4 is a Dallas, Texas, couple who were seeking to purchase a dog.  Following the payment of $950 for the agreed upon dog named Snow White, the couple was contacted regarding issues with shipment and induced to pay $850 more by Zelle, an online payment service.  The couple was contacted again with the claim that payment did not go through due to the wrong name being listed, but refused to resend $850.  Victim 4 lost $1,800;
  • Victim 5 of Cheswick, Pennsylvania, was seeking to purchase a Chihuahua named Bentley for $600.  After sending a $600 MoneyGram to the alleged seller, Victim 5 was contacted repeatedly regarding problems with payments, transportation issues and the need to purchase a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit.  Victim 5 lost $1,500; and
  • Victim 6 of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was searching for a puppy online but became suspicious and did not send any payments.  According to the complaint, 55 text messages were exchanged with Victim 6’s phone number, between Jan. 23, 2020, and Jan. 24, 2020, that attempted to induce Victim 6 to pay for a puppy.

Fodje Bobga was arrested in Cluj, Romania, on Dec. 3, 2020, pursuant to a provisional arrest request from the United States. 

The wire fraud conspiracy and wire fraud charges provide for a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.  Forging of Seal provides for a maximum sentence of five years in prison.  Aggravated identity theft provides for a mandatory two years in prison in addition to the other sentences.  Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The FBI Pittsburgh Field Office conducted the investigation leading to the domain seizures and criminal complaint in this case.  The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Shardul Desai and Ira M. Karoll of the Western District of Pennsylvania and Wei Xiang of the Civil Division’s Consumer Protection Branch.

The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs provided substantial assistance.  Law enforcement authorities in Romania including the Romanian National Police, Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and the Cluj Brigade for Combating Organized Crime provided significant cooperation.

The FBI urges vigilance during the COVID-19 pandemic.  For resources on keeping yourself and your family safe from hackers and scammers visit: https://www.fbi.gov/coronavirus.

The details contained in the criminal complaint are allegations.  The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

For more information about the Consumer Protection Branch, visit its website at www.justice.gov/civil/consumer-protection-branch

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    Many federal agencies (56 of 90) responding to GAO's survey reported using Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. Most often, agencies reported using IoT to: (1) control or monitor equipment or systems (42 of 56); (2) control access to devices or facilities (39 of 56); or (3) track physical assets (28 of 56) such as fleet vehicles or agency property. Agencies also reported using IoT devices to perform tasks such as monitoring water quality, watching the nation's borders, and controlling ships in waterway locks. Furthermore, IoT use by federal agencies may increase in the future, as many agencies reported planning to begin or expand the use of IoT. However, 13 agencies not using IoT technologies reported they did not plan to use the technologies for a range of reasons, including insufficient return on investment. Example of Government's Use of Internet of Things Technology: Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Water Monitoring Buoy Surveyed agencies most frequently reported increasing data collection (45 of 74), and increasing operational efficiency (43 of 74) as benefits of using IoT technologies. Increasing data collection can aid decision-making and support technology development; increased efficiencies may allow agencies to accomplish more with existing resources. According to EPA officials, sensors are able to transmit data eliminating the need for employees to visit sites to collect data. The Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation reported that IoT technologies helped improve transit times through its locks. Agencies most frequently reported cybersecurity issues (43 of 74) and interoperability (30 of 74) as the most significant challenges to adopting IoT technologies. For example, the Transportation Security Administration's officials told us they could not ensure the security and privacy of passenger information and subsequently took its network-connected security equipment offline until they developed a solution. Most agencies' officials responding to GAO's survey (54 of 72), as well as officials interviewed as part of the case studies, reported using information technology (IT) policies developed by their agency, versus internal IoT-specific policies, to manage IoT technologies. Some agencies reported their IT policies were sufficient for the current challenges and risks associated with adopting IoT technologies, including cybersecurity. The Office of Management and Budget's officials stated they do not typically make policies for specific IT components but if needed would work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and others to develop such policies. IoT generally refers to devices—from sensors in vehicles to building thermostats— that collect information, communicate it to a network, and may complete a task based on that information. Although IoT technologies may present an opportunity for the federal government to operate more efficiently and effectively, federal agencies may also face challenges in acquiring and using IoT. GAO was asked to review the federal government's experience with IoT. This report describes (1) IoT technologies selected federal agencies are using, (2) the benefits and challenges of using IoT technologies, and (3) policies and guidance selected agencies follow in using and acquiring IoT technologies. GAO surveyed 115 Chief Information Officers (CIO) and senior IT officials at federal agencies and subcomponents based on, in part, agency membership in the federal CIO Council; 90 responded. However, not all agencies replied to each question. GAO also selected the Department of Commerce, the Department of Homeland Security, EPA, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as case studies. GAO selected these agencies based on, among other things, their fiscal year 2020 IT budgets and examples of IoT use from literature. For each case study, GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials from the Office of the CIO from the agency and officials from selected sub-components that use the IoT technologies. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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    In U.S GAO News
    The Small Business Administration (SBA) develops its subsidy cost estimates for the 7(a) loan guarantee program—that is, estimates of the program's net long-term cost to the government—using a cash flow model. The model uses historical data, econometric equations, and macroeconomic projections to estimate cash flows—such as guarantee fees, SBA purchases of defaulted loans, and recoveries on those loans—for the loans SBA expects to guarantee in the next fiscal year. The net present value of the cash flows (value in current dollars) is the subsidy cost estimate. SBA generally incorporated key elements of subsidy cost estimation into its estimates for the 7(a) program for the fiscal year 2020 budget. Specifically, GAO found that SBA's estimation process was largely consistent with eight key elements GAO previously identified that help ensure subsidy estimates are supported, reliable, and reasonable. For example, SBA generally validated historical data, documented the cash flow model and key assumptions, analyzed the sensitivity of estimates to alternative assumptions, and had documented policies and procedures. SBA made changes in its estimation process that collectively increased the 7(a) program's subsidy cost to $99 million for fiscal year 2020 (a 0.33 percent subsidy rate when expressed as the cost per dollar of credit assistance) from $0 for fiscal year 2019 (0 percent subsidy rate). Some of these changes were routine updates to data and economic assumptions used in the cash flow model, while others were revisions to the estimation process. Additionally, some individual changes increased the subsidy costs, while others decreased it. Some of the changes that had the largest impact on the subsidy rate included the following: Incorporating the President's economic assumptions for fiscal year 2020 decreased the rate by 0.27 percentage points. Updating the basis for the size and composition of the loan cohort SBA expected to guarantee in fiscal year 2020 increased the rate by 0.21 percentage points. Revising the methodology for estimating purchase amounts for defaulted loans to better reflect the outstanding loan balance at the time of purchase increased the rate by 0.21 percentage points. The 7(a) program is SBA's largest loan guarantee program for small businesses, with about $95 billion in outstanding loan principal as of the end of fiscal year 2019. Federal agencies that provide credit assistance are generally required to estimate the net long-term cost to the government—known as the subsidy cost—for each annual cohort of loans. SBA initially estimated a zero subsidy cost for each cohort from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, but estimated that the fiscal year 2020 cohort would have a positive subsidy cost and require appropriations. GAO was asked to evaluate SBA's subsidy estimation process for the 7(a) program. This report examines (1) how SBA estimates 7(a) subsidy costs, (2) the extent to which SBA incorporated key elements of subsidy cost estimation into its estimation process for the fiscal year 2020 budget, and (3) the changes SBA made in its estimation process for the fiscal year 2020 budget. GAO reviewed SBA documentation on its estimation process, including information on SBA's cash flow model, and compared SBA's process to key elements that GAO previously identified ( GAO-16-269 ). GAO also interviewed officials from SBA, the Office of Management and Budget, and outside auditors and contractors that annually review SBA's process and model. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-8678 or shearw@gao.gov.
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    Nonprofit hospitals must satisfy three sets of requirements to obtain and maintain a nonprofit tax exemption (see figure). Requirements for Nonprofit Hospitals to Obtain and Maintain a Tax-Exemption While PPACA established requirements to better ensure hospitals are serving their communities, the law is unclear about what community benefit activities hospitals should be engaged in to justify their tax exemption. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) identified factors that can demonstrate community benefits, but they are not requirements. IRS does not have authority to specify activities hospitals must undertake and makes determinations based on facts and circumstances. This lack of clarity makes IRS's oversight challenging. Congress could help by adding specificity to the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). While IRS is required to review hospitals' community benefit activities at least once every 3 years, it does not have a well-documented process to ensure that those activities are being reviewed. IRS referred almost 1,000 hospitals to its audit division for potential PPACA violations from 2015 through 2019. However, IRS could not identify if any of these referrals related to community benefits. GAO's analysis of IRS data identified 30 hospitals that reported no spending on community benefits in 2016, indicating potential noncompliance with providing community benefits. A well-documented process, such as clear instructions for addressing community benefits in the PPACA reviews or risk-based methods for selecting cases, would help IRS ensure it is effectively reviewing hospitals' community benefit activities. Further, according to IRS officials, hospitals with little to no community benefit expenses would indicate potential noncompliance. However, IRS was unable to provide evidence that it conducts reviews related to hospitals' community benefits because it does not have codes to track such audits. Slightly more than half of community hospitals in the United States are private, nonprofit organizations. IRS and the Department of the Treasury have recognized the promotion of health as a charitable purpose and have specified that nonprofit hospitals are eligible for a tax exemption. IRS has further stated that these hospitals can demonstrate their charitable purpose by providing services that benefit their communities as a whole. In 2010, Congress and the President enacted PPACA, which established additional requirements for tax-exempt hospitals to meet to maintain their tax exemption. GAO was asked to review IRS's implementation of requirements for tax-exempt hospitals. This report assesses IRS's (1) oversight of how tax-exempt hospitals provide community benefits, and (2) enforcement of PPACA requirements related to tax-exempt hospitals. GAO is making one matter for congressional consideration to specify in the IRC what services and activities Congress considers sufficient community benefit. GAO is also making four recommendations to IRS, including to establish a well-documented process to ensure hospitals' community benefit activities are being reviewed, and to create codes to track audit activity related to hospitals' community benefit activities. IRS agreed with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Jessica Lucas-Judy at (202) 512-9110 or lucasjudyj@gao.gov.
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  • COVID-19: Federal Efforts Could Be Strengthened by Timely and Concerted Actions
    In U.S GAO News
    In the government’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Congress and the administration have taken action on multiple fronts to address challenges that have contributed to catastrophic loss of life and profound economic disruption. These actions have helped direct much-needed federal assistance to support many aspects of public life, including local public health systems and private-sector businesses. However, the nation faces continued public health risks and economic difficulties for the foreseeable future. Among other challenges, the public health system, already strained from months of responding to COVID-19 cases, will face the additional task of managing the upcoming flu season. At the same time, many of the federal, state, and local agencies responsible for responding to the ongoing public health emergency are called on to prepare for and respond to the current hurricane season. Timely and concerted federal leadership will be required in responding to these and other challenges. GAO has identified lessons learned and issues in need of continued attention by the Congress and the administration, including the need to collect reliable data that can drive decision-making; to establish mechanisms for accountability and transparency; and to protect against ongoing cyber threats to patient information, intellectual property, public health data, and intelligence. Attention to these issues can help to make federal efforts as effective as possible. GAO has also identified a number of opportunities to help the federal government prepare for the months ahead while improving the ongoing federal response: Medical Supply Chain The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with support from the Department of Defense (DOD), have taken numerous, significant efforts to mitigate supply shortages and expand the medical supply chain. For example, the agencies have coordinated to deliver supplies directly to nursing homes and used Defense Production Act authorities to increase the domestic production of supplies. However, shortages of certain types of personal protective equipment and testing supplies remain due to a supply chain with limited domestic production and high global demand. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and FEMA have both identified shortages, and officials from seven of the eight states GAO interviewed in July and August 2020 identified previous or ongoing shortages of testing supplies, including swabs, reagents, tubes, pipettes, and transport media. Testing supply shortages have contributed to delays in turnaround times for testing results. Delays in processing test results have multiple serious consequences, including delays in isolating those who test positive and tracing their contacts in a timely manner, which can in turn exacerbate outbreaks by allowing the virus to spread undetected. In addition, states and other nonfederal entities have experienced challenges tracking supply requests made through the federal government and planning for future needs. GAO is making the following recommendations: HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should immediately document roles and responsibilities for supply chain management functions transitioning to HHS, including continued support from other federal partners, to ensure sufficient resources exist to sustain and make the necessary progress in stabilizing the supply chain. HHS, in coordination with FEMA, should further develop and communicate to stakeholders plans outlining specific actions the federal government will take to help mitigate supply chain shortages for the remainder of the pandemic. HHS and FEMA—working with relevant stakeholders—should devise interim solutions, such as systems and guidance and dissemination of best practices, to help states enhance their ability to track the status of supply requests and plan for supply needs for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic response. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) objected to GAO’s initial draft recommendations. GAO made revisions based on their comments. GAO maintains that implementation of its modified recommendations is both warranted and prudent. These actions could contribute to ensuring a more effective response by helping to mitigate challenges with the stability of the medical supply chain and the ability of nonfederal partners to track, plan, and budget for ongoing medical supply needs. Vaccines and Therapeutics Multiple federal agencies continue to support the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat COVID-19. These efforts are aimed at accelerating the traditional timeline to create a vaccine (see figure). Traditional Timeline for Development and Creation of a Vaccine Note: See figure 5 in the report. As these efforts proceed, clarity on the federal government’s plans for distributing and administering vaccine, as well as timely, clear, and consistent communication to stakeholders and the public about those plans, is essential. DOD is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of a vaccine. In September 2020, HHS indicated that it will soon send a report to Congress outlining a distribution plan, but did not provide a specific date for doing so. GAO recommends that HHS, with support from DOD, establish a time frame for documenting and sharing a national plan for distributing and administering COVID-19 vaccine, and in developing such a plan ensure that it is consistent with best practices for project planning and scheduling and outlines an approach for how efforts will be coordinated across federal agencies and nonfederal entities. DOD partially concurred with the recommendation, clarifying that it is supporting HHS in developing plans for nationwide distribution and administration of vaccine. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but noted factors that complicate the publication of a plan. GAO maintains that a time frame is necessary so all relevant stakeholders will be best positioned to begin their planning.On September 16, 2020, HHS and DOD released two documents outlining a strategy for any COVID-19 vaccine. GAO will evaluate these documents and report on them in future work.GAO will also continue to conduct related work, including examining federal efforts to accelerate the development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. COVID-19 Data Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths exists among racial and ethnic minority groups, but GAO identified gaps in these data. To help address these gaps, on July 22, 2020, CDC released a COVID-19 Response Health Equity Strategy. However, the strategy does not assess whether having the authority to require states and jurisdictions to report race and ethnicity information is necessary to ensure CDC can collect such data. CDC’s strategy also does not specify how it will involve key stakeholders, such as health care providers, laboratories, and state and jurisdictional health departments. GAO recommends that CDC (1) determine whether having the authority to require the reporting of race and ethnicity information for cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is necessary for ensuring more complete data, and if so, seek such authority from Congress; (2) involve key stakeholders to help ensure the complete and consistent collection of demographic data; and (3) take steps to help ensure its ability to comprehensively assess the long-term health outcomes of persons with COVID-19, including by race and ethnicity. HHS agreed with the recommendations. In addition, HHS’s data on COVID-19 in nursing homes do not capture the early months of the pandemic. HHS’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) began requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 data to CDC by May 17, 2020, starting with information as of May 8, 2020, but made reporting prior to May 8, 2020 optional. By not requiring nursing homes to submit data from the first 4 months of 2020, HHS is limiting the usefulness of the data in helping to understand the effects of COVID-19 in nursing homes. GAO recommends that HHS, in consultation with CMS and CDC, develop a strategy to capture more complete data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes retroactively back to January 1, 2020. HHS partially agreed with this recommendation by noting the value of having complete data, but expressed concern about the burden of collecting it. GAO maintains the importance of collecting these data to inform the government’s continued response and recovery, and HHS could ease the burden by incorporating data previously reported to CDC or to state or local public health offices. Economic Impact Payments The Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has issued economic impact payments (EIP) to all eligible individuals for whom IRS has the necessary information to do so; however, not everyone eligible was able to be initially identified. To help ensure all eligible recipients received their payments in a more timely manner, IRS took several actions to address challenges GAO reported on in June, including a policy change—reopening the Non-Filers tool registration period for federal benefit recipients and extending it through September 30—that should allow some eligible recipients to receive supplemental payments for qualifying children sooner than expected. However, Treasury and IRS lack updated information on how many eligible recipients have yet to receive these funds. The lack of such information could hinder outreach efforts and place potentially millions of individuals at risk of missing their payment. GAO recommends that Treasury, in coordination with IRS, (1) update and refine the estimate of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP to help target outreach and communications efforts and (2) make estimates of eligible recipients who have yet to file for an EIP, and other relevant information, available to outreach partners to raise awareness about how and when to file for EIP. Treasury and IRS neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations and described actions they are taking in concert with the recommendations to notify around 9 million individuals who may be eligible for an EIP. Coronavirus Relief Fund The Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) is the largest program established in the four COVID-19 relief laws that provides aid to states, the District of Columbia, localities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories. Audits of entities that receive federal funds, including CRF payments, are critical to the federal government’s ability to help safeguard those funds. Auditors that conduct single audits follow guidance in the Single Audit Act’s Compliance Supplement, which the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) updates and issues annually in coordination with federal agencies. OMB issued the 2020 Compliance Supplement in August 2020, but the Compliance Supplement specified that OMB is still working with federal agencies to identify the needs for additional guidance for auditing new COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, as well as existing programs with compliance requirement changes. According to OMB, an addendum on COVID-19-related programs, including the CRF payments, will be issued in the fall of 2020. Further delays in issuing this guidance could adversely affect auditors’ ability to issue consistent and timely reports. GAO recommends that OMB, in consultation with Treasury, issue the addendum to the 2020 Compliance Supplement as soon as possible to provide the necessary audit guidance, as many single audit efforts are underway. OMB neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation. Guidance for K-12 Schools State and local school district officials tasked with reassessing their operating status and ensuring their school buildings are safe are generally relying on guidance and recommendations from federal, state, and local public health and education officials. However, portions of CDC’s guidance on reopening K-12 schools are inconsistent, and some federal guidance appears misaligned with CDC’s risk-based approach on school operating status. Based on GAO’s review, Education has updated the information and CDC has begun to do so. GAO recommends that CDC ensure that, as it makes updates to its guidance related to schools’ operating status, the guidance is cogent, clear, and internally consistent. HHS agreed with the recommendation. Tracking Contract Obligations Federal agencies are tracking contract actions and associated obligations in response to COVID-19 using a National Interest Action (NIA) code in the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation. The COVID-19 NIA code was established in March 2020 and was recently extended until March 31, 2021, while a draft of this report recommending that DHS and DOD extend the code beyond September 30, 2020, was with the agencies for comment. GAO has identified inconsistencies in establishing and closing these codes following previous emergencies, and has continued concerns with the criteria that DHS and DOD rely on to determine whether to extend or close a code and whether the code meets long-term needs. GAO recommends that DHS and DOD make updates to the 2019 NIA Code Memorandum of Agreement so as to enhance visibility for federal agencies, the public, and Congress on contract actions and associated obligations related to disaster events, and to ensure the criteria for extending or closing the NIA code reflect government-wide needs for tracking contract actions in longer-term emergencies, such as a pandemic. DHS and DOD did not agree, but GAO maintains implementation of its recommendation is essential. Address Cybersecurity Weaknesses Since March 2020, malicious cyber actors have exploited COVID-19 to target organizations that make up the health care and public health critical infrastructure sector, including government entities, such as HHS. GAO has identified numerous cybersecurity weaknesses at multiple HHS component agencies, including CMS, CDC, and FDA, over the last 6 years, such as weaknesses in key safeguards to limit, prevent, and detect inappropriate access to computer resources. Additionally, GAO’s March 2019 high-risk update identified cybersecurity and safeguarding the systems supporting the nation’s critical infrastructure, such as health care, as high-risk areas. As of July 2020, CMS, FDA, and CDC had made significant progress by implementing 350 (about 81 percent) of the 434 recommendations GAO issued in previous reports to address these weaknesses. Based on the imminent cybersecurity threats, GAO recommends that HHS expedite implementation of GAO’s prior recommendations regarding cybersecurity weaknesses at its component agencies. HHS agreed with the recommendation. As of September 10, 2020, the U.S. had over 6.3 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and over 177,000 reported deaths, according to federal agencies. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions and turmoil. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of September 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of July 31, 2020, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.6 trillion and expended $1.5 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds as reported by federal agencies on USAspending.gov. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report bimonthly on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This third report examines key actions the federal government has taken to address the COVID-19 pandemic and evolving lessons learned relevant to the nation’s response to pandemics. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials, as well as industry representatives. GAO is making 16 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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    Between January 1980 and July 2020, the United States experienced 273 climate and weather disasters causing more than $1 billion in damages each, according to NOAA. The total cost of damages from these disasters exceeded $1.79 trillion, with hurricanes and tropical storms accounting for over 50 percent of these damages, according to NOAA. Across the regions affected by these hurricanes over the period from 2005 to 2015, CBO estimated that federal disaster assistance covered, on average, 62 percent of the damage costs. GAO has reported that the rising number of natural disasters and reliance on federal disaster assistance is a key source of federal fiscal exposure. GAO was asked to review the costs of natural disasters and their effects on communities. This report examines (1) estimates of the costs of damages caused by hurricanes and hurricanes' effects on overall economic activity and employment in the areas they affected, and (2) actions subsequently taken in those areas to improve resilience to future natural disasters. GAO conducted case studies of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma, selected for two reasons. First, they were declared a major disaster by the President under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which establishes key programs through which the federal government provides disaster assistance, primarily through FEMA. Second, they had sizable effects on the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia during the period from 2004 through 2018. GAO analyzed federal agency and other data on costs, economic activity, employment, and recovery and mitigation projects in selected areas affected by these hurricanes. GAO also visited selected recovery and mitigation project sites; interviewed experts and federal, state, and local government officials; and reviewed federal, state, and local government reports and academic studies. Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma (selected hurricanes) caused costly damages and challenges for some populations in affected communities. In these communities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated the cost of damages to be approximately $170 billion for Katrina, $74 billion for Sandy, $131 billion for Harvey, and $52 billion for Irma. These estimates include the value of damages to residential, commercial, and government or municipal buildings; material assets within the buildings; business interruption; vehicles and boats; offshore energy platforms; public infrastructure; and agricultural assets. These hurricanes were also costly to the federal government. For example, in 2016, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that federal spending exceeded $110 billion in response to Katrina and $53 billion in response to Sandy. GAO analysis suggests that the selected hurricanes were associated with widely varying effects on overall economic activity and total employment in affected metropolitan areas and counties. Economic activity was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in three of the affected metropolitan areas GAO analyzed. Within one year, average economic activity in these three metropolitan areas was similar to or greater than what it had been the year before the hurricane. Total employment was lower than expected in the month of the hurricane or some of the three subsequent months in 80 of the affected counties GAO analyzed. Total employment was higher than pre-hurricane employment on average in 47 of those counties within one year but remained below pre-hurricane employment on average in the other 33 counties for at least one year. Finally, state and local government officials said that the selected hurricanes had significant impacts on communities, local governments, households, and businesses with fewer resources and less expertise, and that challenges faced by households may have impacted local businesses. Communities affected by selected hurricanes have been taking actions to improve resilience, but multiple factors can affect their decisions. Actions taken after selected hurricanes include elevating, acquiring, and rehabilitating homes; flood-proofing public buildings; repairing and upgrading critical infrastructure; constructing flood barriers; and updating building codes. A community’s decision to take resilience actions can depend on the costs and benefits of those actions to the community. Multiple factors affect these costs and benefits, including the likelihood, severity, and location of future disasters, as well as the amount of federal assistance available after a disaster. Finally, vulnerabilities remain in areas affected by selected hurricanes. For example, state and local government officials indicated that many older homes in these areas do not meet current building codes. In reports to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), states indicate they anticipate that the scope of damages via exposure to weather hazards, such as hurricanes, will likely remain high and could expand across regions affected by the selected hurricanes. In addition, some local governments have projected that population will grow in the regions affected by selected hurricanes. For more information, contact Oliver Richard at 202-512-8424 or richardo@gao.gov.
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