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State, county target welfare cheaters

Welfare cheaters beware: local fraud investigators will ask residents this month to keep their eyes open, thanks in part to a state publicity campaign.

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Welfare cheaters beware: local fraud investigators will ask residents this month to keep their eyes open, thanks in part to a state publicity campaign.

"Basically, as far as welfare fraud, it’s up to the community as a whole to trigger some kind of action from us," said Buddy Martin, director Lawrence County Human Services.

Case workers catch many cheaters, and new computer systems have lowered the fraud rate, but it still takes the public’s help to protect tax dollars best, Martin said.

"No, we’re not asking everybody to become spies, but if you know someone’s receiving welfare checks when they shouldn’t, it’s all taxpayer money and you have an obligation to report," he said.

The Ohio Department of Human Services has given each of the state’s 88 counties $2,500 to help publicize such campaigns against welfare fraud.

The department said that it also will supply county human services agencies with public service videos and other material to warn welfare recipients that fraud will be prosecuted.

Fraud ranges from misreporting the residential status of recipients’ spouses to illegal trafficking in food stamps. Other abuses include unreported income from various federal programs, such as Social Security, and work performed for cash.

To help catch those who would take the money and run, so to speak, Lawrence County officials have established a fraud hotline, said Janet Jones, income maintenance administrator.

People who suspect fraud may call 532-0658 to leave a message, anonymously, Mrs. Jones said.

The county department used some of the state publicity money to purchase flyers, coasters and mouse pads with a "stop fraud" message. Those will be used among office employees and the public, she said.

Some materials also were handed out at the Lawrence County Fair last month to increase awareness of fraud, Mrs. Jones added.

Martin said employees catch fraud during interviews with clients and through follow-up visits, but the department employs fraud investigators, too.

The state money will allow the county to purchase a cell phone and camera for an investigator, he said.

"There is not nearly as much fraud these days as there was years ago," Martin said. "Computerization and the checks we do have cut down greatly in potential fraud but we need community help because someone will always try to beat the system."

Although it varies each year, local fraud reports number about 100 a year, he said.

Statewide, changes in welfare rules that the Legislature passed in 1997 have cut down on abuse, largely because recipients can now work and still receive benefits, department spokesman Jon Allen said. Most recipients are limited to three years of cash assistance over a five-year period.

”Welfare reform simply provided the nudge they (recipients) need to go out and be self-sufficient,” Allen said.

Ohioans have saved more than $82 million in possible losses since 1991 because of fraud investigations, the department said. Authorities also have collected more than $15 million in benefit overpayments in the last four years, it said.

New, electronic food stamp cards also have cut down on fraud, the department said. The cards are now in use in 25 counties and should be available throughout the state by the end of this year.