"We are getting far more aggressive on using our administrative remedies. And we're getting much better," said Philip King, assistant director of the county Department of Human Services.
The unpaid overpayment claims go back about 20 years, King said. Total overpayment collections average $110,000 per year.
Portage County has some 1,600 active cases under investigation, King said. Cases can be closed through administrative, civil or criminal action.
But the problem isn't only found in Portage County. County departments of human services across Ohio have been focusing on welfare fraud this month, stopping or recouping millions of dollars in fraudulent assistance payments to ineligible recipients.
The Ohio Department of Human Services declared September as Stop Welfare Fraud month, and is highlighting new, more stringent fraud penalties as one way of plugging holes in the welfare system. The campaign is part of the changing picture of the welfare system, which now includes required job training and limits on how long someone can receive assistance.
Penalties for fraud range from loss or reduction of benefits to criminal prosecution. Judges can rule that a person is ineligible for benefits for life.
Just last month two Portage women were indicted in separate cases by a county grand jury. One woman was charged for fraudulently getting an estimated $16,000 in benefits. In criminal cases, the charges can range from misdemeanor falsification to felony grand theft or food stamp trafficking, King said.
King said the two recent cases are just the start.
"We have several that we are preparing for presentation to the prosecutor's office that we hope will go to the grand jury," he said.
In Ohio last year, collections of food stamp overpayments totaled nearly $15.5 million. Of the total, $4 million was recouped by attaching income tax refunds and $3.3 million was recovered from documented fraud cases.
"We now are beginning to see how self-responsibility is not just limited to getting off of welfare and working. We are now seeing that self-responsibility is telling us the truth (on the applications)," King said.
Gennifer Woodworth, an investigator for the county department, said fraud investigations can be initiated by a variety of things, but are often triggered by information from other clients.
"Most of the time when we hear it, it's from the recipient we've caught and they want the dominoes to fall," King said. Overpaid benefits can be collected if the recipient leaves the county, or in some cases, even if they die.
"If the children were part of the overpayment, we can go after them _ and we do," said King.
Not all errors in benefits are proven to be fraud. Some cases are handled administratively as intentional program violations, where there may be evidence that information was false, but there is not enough evidence to prove intent to defraud, King said. The county department most recently did a $57,000 recovery through an administrative remedy, King said. In addition to repaying the benefits the individual was disqualified from receiving food stamps for six months.
King said misrepresentation of facts, if not outright fraud, is fairly common in the system.
"Out of five individuals on assistance one of those five, it has been my experience, has been misrepresenting information. That could mean that they are doing something as simple as having garage sales once a month, selling their plasma, or working five jobs and making $10,000."
A new detection tool, the Early Detection and Prevention Program saves county taxpayers an estimated $300,000 per year in benefits, King estimated.
New computer programs allow different human service agencies to compare information from a variety of sources. The county human services department can also match all taxable and nontaxable income to its recipients, including bingo and lottery winnings, workman's and unemployment compensation.
The typical welfare recipient in Portage County is a single mother, under age 25, with one or two children. Common types of fraud are due to a client failing to tell the truth about who is living in the household (and contributing to it financially), change in job status, hiding income or financial resources.
Some recipients might neglect to tell the department they've started a new job. But a statewide computer system called the Client Registry Information System Enhanced tracks employment and provides the employee's current address at time of hire.
Failure to disclose the whole truth on their application, or when their income picture changes, is a common type of misrepresentation, said Woodworth.
One of the most common deceptions is "midnight daddies," or male wage earners who live in the home of a welfare recipient but aren't declared to the agency.
Investigators are allowed to make unannounced home visits during a fraud investigation, and sometimes turn up fathers or other male residents _ sometimes hiding from investigators.
Fraud prevention begins even before an applicant receives financial help. If a review of an assistance application shows discrepancies with other information, the applicant may be given the choice of withdrawing the application, or face criminal prosecution for making false claims, King said.
Last year state-wide county human service departments reported 4,600 cases of food stamp fraud resulted in nearly $2.2 million in fraudulently obtained benefits.
Counties also documented 2,072 fraud cases involving more than $5.4 million in overpayment of benefits to Aid to Dependent Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients.
Last year county welfare departments completed 13,526 investigations
under the early detection and prevention program. In 45 percent of the
cases, investigators discovered information that differed from
information given by applicants.