County says public assistance fraud won’t be toleratedFraud is an ongoing issue in Carlton County’s public assistance program — much like everywhere else in Minnesota — but the state is making a concerted effort at uncovering violators and taking steps toward future prevention. Members of th
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Fraud is an ongoing issue in Carlton County’s public assistance program — much like everywhere else in Minnesota — but the state is making a concerted effort at uncovering violators and taking steps toward future prevention.
Members of the Carlton County Committee of the Whole recently heard an update on the impact of public assistance fraud investigation from its regional fraud investigator (who requested not to be named in this article due to the sensitive nature of his job).
The investigator, a 32-year law enforcement veteran, works under the Office of the Inspector General. Now in his fourth year of investigating claims of fraudulent activity for Pine, Carlton, Kanabec and Aitkin counties, he said overall the program is working very successfully and explained a little more about how the system works.
First off, he debunked the myth that Carlton County has become a hotbed for people seeking to obtain greater amounts of public assistance than they have coming to them.
“We need to get the word out that money isn’t sitting in bags at the Human Services office and all you have to do is come in the door and they’ll hand you one,” he said. “Just because you drive up here from Minneapolis doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you want.”
He explained there are rigorous guidelines that must be met in order to qualify for public assistance, such as job search requirements, the number of members in the family and income or lack of income.
“All of these things fit into the funnel,” he said, “and basically what happens is if you fit into all of the requirements, we’re going to give you some food, we’re going to give you some money and we’re going to give you some help. But you don’t get any better deal here in Carlton County than you do anywhere else in Minnesota.”
Since first coming on board in 2010, he has investigated over 250 public assistance fraud cases in Carlton County, 152 of which resulted in changes in benefits. Of that number, 20 people lost benefits for an entire year due to violations.
He reported that the savings to the county generated over that period of time has amounted to some $77,000.
“The other thing we look at is overpayments [to public assistance recipients],” he explained. “We identified $78,000 in overpayments during that time period, which the county goes after by contacting the people to set up a payment schedule or sometimes sending them to collections.”
The fraud investigator works under the program known as FPI — Fraud Prevention Investigation — and while he initially dealt mainly in uncovering public assistance fraud, he said he has been getting more and more into the prevention end of things as well over the past couple of years.
Much of the fraud committed has to do with either false reporting or misuse of Electronic Benefit Cards (EBTs),
the plastic cards that give pre-qualified users access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (often referred to as food stamps) as well as to cash benefits administered through such programs as General Assistance and the Minnesota Family Investment Program.
The EBT card helps provide basic needs, including food, shelter, clothing, utilities and transportation. EBT cards cannot be used to buy tobacco products or alcoholic beverages and it is considered fraud if a person does so, resulting in removal from the program. It is also illegal to use EBT cards at a gambling establishment or retail establishment which provides adult-oriented entertainment.
The investigator said sometimes people who are legitimate EBT cardholders are willing to sell the use of the card to someone else in return for cash.
“We had one lady contact us who said she knew someone who, every Friday right after she got her EBT benefits, went to the store and met her friend, who exchanged money with her for the use of her card,” related the investigator. “Every store of any size these days has video surveillance cameras, and some of them are so sophisticated that I can give them the date and time of the sale and the EBT number and they can punch all that into their computer and find it. We watched as that person came into the store, met up with the friend, exchanged money in an envelope, and then the friend went to the cash register, got all her groceries, gave the card back and went out to her car.”
The investigator said in an instance such as that one, he confronts the person and they get written up for committing fraud.
In other cases, he said, some people applying for public assistance either tell an outright lie or fail to provide all the information necessary to determine their benefits.
“Someone might say all they have is a ’78 Plymouth that barely runs,” he related. “If there is a question on it, I’d go out there and there might be the Plymouth, but also a brand new Chevy 4x4, some ATVs, etc. Because they weren’t reported, they’d figure in to the amount of benefits that person was going to get. Depending on circumstances and the overall picture, we might just reduce their benefits back to what they should be, take them away altogether, or charge them with fraud.”
He said when an applicant fills out the form for public assistance, the last page asks the applicant to verify they’re telling the truth and informs them if there is any question regarding eligibility the fraud investigation procedures allow the investigator to look through their bank accounts, go to their landlord, go to their children’s school, or any number of things to either prove or disprove that they are fraudulently obtaining public assistance benefits.
The investigator said he always tries to look at the big picture, understanding that with people who just come on public assistance, there are so many rules it’s sometimes difficult to totally understand them.
“However, if we’re looking at hundreds or thousands of dollars or some very blatant discrepancies such as where they’re living or who’s living in their household, I have no qualms about charging people,” he said. “I just finished up a case where a couple lied over a long period of time about employment. During an eight-month period, it turned out one of the parties was actually employed.”
When someone is written up for a fraud violation, they have the opportunity to either admit the violation and waive a hearing or to appear before an administrative law judge. Then, when merited, appropriate benefits are taken away from them and the county goes after them for overpayments. In the case of the couple who failed to report employment, the county saved over $12,000 in payments after their benefits were taken away for the period of one year.
“We don’t take benefits away from children,” said the investigator, “so if a family has three or four children and the parents violate, we charge them and we take away only those benefits that the mom and dad were going to get but we continue giving them food benefits for the children.”
Also, health care benefits aren’t taken away from either the parents or the children.
The investigator said people are often surprised at the fact that he is able to uncover violations, but he said in today’s computerized world, it’s fairly easy to follow up after an applicant fills out the forms for public assistance and all of that information goes into the computer system.
“Someone might not want to admit they have thousands of dollars tucked into a bank account somewhere, but sooner or later a suspicion may come up or the information doesn’t fall into place so we get what’s called a ‘fraud referral’ that tells us they should be investigated,” he said.
Sometimes an investigation is launched after someone calls in to report possible fraud.
“They might say, ‘Gee, you know so-and-so? They’re getting public assistance but they’ve got a job on the side,’ or ‘Their children haven’t lived in their home for years,’” said the investigator.
He then does a complete computer workup on the person in question and it becomes a legal investigation. If there is any kind of issue with getting information from banks, credit unions or other agencies, he goes to the county attorney’s office and gets an administrative subpoena.
“Things are not just black and white,” he clarified. “You can’t just say someone is committing a fraud and think we can go after them just because you said so. There are a certain number of cases where we find nothing wrong and there’s no violation, or it’s so small that all you do is bring them in and talk with them about it so it doesn’t ever happen again. It’s not that we want to take people off programs, because there are a lot of people who need them. We want the ability to deal with those who are violators and getting thousands of dollars they don’t have coming to them.”
The fraud investigator said he gets 100 percent cooperation from the county, which helps him do his job much better. Patti Hart, financial supervisor for Carlton County, said the feeling is likewise.
“We have a good working relationship with the fraud investigator,” she said. “We think it’s reassuring to the public to know that these types of fraud are being uncovered and dealt with.”
Hart said fraud detection and prevention are especially important since the number of people on public assistance is on the increase. She said the number of people in the county on food support alone has doubled over the past eight to 10 years, in part due the poor economy and in part because the asset test was eliminated as a measure of qualifying for food support.
The regional investigator emphasized the intent of the Fraud Prevention Investigation program is not to deprive people of the support they need, but to make certain no one is cheating the system.
“We want to help people, but we want people to be truthful and honest,” he said. “But the help ends when they become untruthful and downright lie by trying to hide employment and income.”
Anyone suspecting someone is abusing the public assistance system should call Carlton County Health and Human Services at 218-879-4583 or the State Fraud Hotline at 800-627-9977.