Welfare fraud on downward trend

Fulton County Department of Social Services Commissioner Sheryda Cooper, far right, addresses welfare fraud at the Board of Supervisors' Human Services Committee meeting Tuesday at the County Office Building in Johnstown. (The Leader-Herald/Michael Anich)

JOHNSTOWN — Utilizing six years worth of data, Fulton County Department of Social Services Commissioner Sheryda Cooper on Tuesday pointed to a downward trend in the county’s welfare fraud cases.

She reported the DSS Investigative Unit received 1,141 total fraud investigations for 2017.

“That is down from the previous year,” Cooper told the Board of Supervisors’ Human Services Committee at the County Office Building.

Not only was that figure down from 1,467 investigations received in 2016. but also down considerably from 1,205 received in 2012. Cooper said total investigations completed by DSS in 2017 was 1,037 – also down considerably from 1,501 in 2016. She said caseloads are also on the decline.

“They are taking it seriously and taking action,” Cooper said of the Investigative Unit.

The percentage of fraud complaints that were “founded” in 2017 was 55 percent – higher than 43 percent in 2016 and 20 percentage points higher than 35 percent founded in 2012 – the first year of Cooper’s data.

Meanwhile, fraud cases presented to the District Attorney’s Office were up slightly, from 119 in 2016 to 125 in 2017. Numbers are much higher than the 69 cases presented for prosecution in 2012.

“A lot of the cases are being prosecuted,” Cooper said.

She said DSS is handling many fraud cases in which the benefits recipient is agreeing to disqualify before going to court. She said the amount of time a person is disqualified from DSS benefits depends on how many times they’ve been deemed fraudulent. She said it may be six months for the first disqualification.

“I think the state [punishment] needs to be strengthened on it,” said Gloversville 2nd Ward Supervisor Frank Lauria Jr.

The total dollar amount of fraud cases declined from $171,698 in 2016 to $141,012 in 2017. The most dramatic drop came from food stamp fraud declining from $144,983 in 2016 to $84,544 in 2017.

Fulton County also utilizes a Front End Detection System, or FEDS system in catching fraud in the application process before the DSS recipient even receives his or her benefits. Cooper said the number of county FEDS cases with “positive results” was 32 percent for 2017. From 2012 to 2016, those percentages ranged from 11 to 22 percent. The number of positive result FEDS cases rose from 52 two years ago to 81 in 2017, which saved the county over $62,000 last year.

Household error overpayments totalled 502 in 2017, compared to 414 in 2016, but Cooper said it was due to a more aggressive approach in finding past errors.

“What staff did was clean up a lot of old stuff,” the DSS official said.

One figure pointed to by Cooper was the total recoveries figure of $379,671 for 2017 – up from $222,561 for the previous year. Those figures included: cash recoupment lottery intercepts, civil judgments, and money collected through probation.

Gloversville 3rd Ward Supervisor John Blackmon asked if people hindered from receiving Fulton County DSS benefits are going to other counties.

Cooper said she didn’t know, but the same fraud rules are applied in all counties.

“I think we have a very good unit,” she said. “We have three examiners working on this. We’re pretty aggressive on it.”

Cooper said her department has an excellent relationship with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department and office of District Attorney Chad Brown on fraud. She said the fraud unit has a wealth of experience.

“The [DSS] programs are very complicated as far as figuring the eligibility,” Cooper said. “And it constantly changes.”

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.