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County cracks down on welfare fraud

Thinking of rounding that number up or down on your application for assistance? You may want to reconsider.

Douglas County commissioners were presented with an annual welfare fraud prevention report at the Tuesday, April 24 meeting.

Brenda Becker is a fraud prevention investigator serving the region of Douglas, Grant, Pope, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties. Becker said the fraud prevention program began in Minnesota in the 1990s. In 2009, the program expanded, forming the region that includes Douglas County.

Since July 2011, Becker has completed 118 investigations, 10 of which were referred for criminal investigation. Becker reported a total of $102,324 in overpayments in that time.

Fraud has been found in cases involving temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) cash, food support, medical support and child care assistance. Sometimes it's a tip and other times it comes to the social worker's attention that things just don't add up, Becker said.

Social Services Director Mike Woods added that computer programs also help catch errors. For example, a person's Social Security number flags earned income that wasn't reported. A referral is then made for an investigation.

"I knock on doors," Becker said. "It seems to be very simple for someone to put something down on paper, that they're just tweaking the truth a little bit, but when somebody knocks on their door they usually come clean with what the truth of the matter is versus being called to the office or having a phone call."

Woods said the fraud cases investigated are not small mistakes in paperwork; they are willful attempts to defraud the system.

In 2011, 6,819 fraud prevention investigations were performed statewide. Investigations resulted in 3,111 welfare cases either being closed or having benefits reduced. Not all cases were intentional fraud.

The investigations identified 1,116 cases of overpayment totaling $3,632,113. On average, each investigation took eight days to complete. Criminal investigators looked into 1,367 more serious fraud cases and uncovered $3,479,839 in overpaid benefits.

Becker said criminal investigations are lengthy and have a higher dollar amount involved. She described what she does as a stopgap to determine if a case is criminally fraudulent or if it can be handled within the system.

Becker's position does not affect the county's budget; it is fully funded by a grant provided by the state of Minnesota. The program is considered "cost-neutral," meaning that for every dollar earned, Becker must bring in the state standard of 2.5 percent. Her cost benefit ratio for the Douglas County region is 4.74 percent.

If fraud is suspected, citizens can anonymously call the Department of Human Services hotline at 1-800-627-9977. Plans for a web-based reporting system are under way which are designed to eliminate transcription of recorded phone reports.

Follow #AlexMN @EchoPress reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter at @CrystalDey_Echo.

Crystal Dey

Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.

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