The Florida Department of Children and Families is cracking down on welfare fraud, saying theft of public-assistance dollars costs the state an estimated $1.35 billion annually.
The agency has just received grant funding from the state Department of Agriculture to implement a first-of-its-kind system to track and halt fraud in much the same way that banks and credit card companies already do.
Our Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know that these measures are primarily aimed at prevention, but they could undoubtedly be used as evidence in criminal prosecutions.
Florida Statute 414.39 governs welfare fraud in the state. It holds that any person who fails, either by false statement or by impersonation or misrepresentation or any other fraudulent means, to disclose material facts regarding the determination of a person’s qualification to receive public assistance from state or federal programs or if the person falsifies information to receive larger benefits than what they might rightly collect, is guilty of a crime.
The severity of that crime, and therefore the punishment, depends on which fund was stolen from and how much was wrongfully taken.
For example, if a person wrongfully collects food vouchers from the state with an aggregate value of $200 or less in any one-year period, it’s a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail. However, if the value of those food vouchers was more than $200 in a one-year time frame, it’s bumped up to a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
The fraud tracking program that Florida is gearing up to launch is going to cost the state about $1 million to $4 million annually, but it’s expected to save about $60 million just in that first year. In addition to funding from the Department of Agriculture, the state legislature pitched in about $5 million for the program, which should subsequently be able to fund itself.
A recent trial run over the course of five weeks involved establishing new hurdles to collection of food vouchers provided by the state. An online screening tool is used to pepper the recipient with a series of questions that only he or she should know. This particular device is an effort to ward off identity thieves. Of nearly 140,000 applications in the first several weeks, the Orlando office red-flagged some $210,000 in fraud – which was triple what authorities had expected to uncover.
Nowhere else in the government sector is this being done. This marks a shift in approach to the issue. Traditionally, tackling the issue of identity theft and welfare fraud had involved a method of “pay-and-chase.” The state would pay out the funds, then recognize them as fraudulent and go after the alleged thieves.
This effort follows a number of higher-profile arrests for fraud in Florida. In one case, a mental health counselor in central Florida was accused of running a $3 million Medicaid fraud operation, using the money to purchase high-end cars, expensive vacations and nearly $200,000 in designer purses.
Then recently in Manatee County, some 100 people were arrested on allegations of food stamp fraud.
Right now in Florida, 9 out of 10 welfare recipients apply for their benefits online. This has allowed the state to reduce the huge lines at welfare offices, but it has given increasing rise to identity theft.
Three years ago, the state founded the Office of Public Assistance Benefits Integrity, which accepts and investigates complaints of public assistance fraud.
Public officials say that by far, Medicaid fraud is the most common problem in this realm, with individuals often hiding income in order to meet eligibility requirements. This is followed by food stamp fraud. In many cases, people will heist the identities of those who are imprisoned or deceased to collect benefits.
Last fall, Florida officials began using software to cross-reference information from financial institutions to determine whether recipients had access to money they weren’t disclosing to the government.
If you are charged with a crime in Palm Beach or Broward counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.
Florida officials announce details to halt public-assistance fraud, May 14, 2013, By Kate Santich, Orlando Sun Sentinel
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