A growing number of targets who have come under the government’s radar in recent years for what prosecutors describe as a pervasive and costly crime: the theft of dead people’s benefits. These scammers have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Last year alone, inspector general audits found that the Social Security Administration paid out more than $40 million to 500 dead people in just three states: Texas, Maryland and Michigan.
After years of struggling to catch Social Security fraudsters, the government believes it’s making progress on this front, largely because of some dogged investigative work involving medical records. In 2014, the government launched an initiative that involved contacting elderly Social Security beneficiaries who hadn’t used their Medicare in three years or more. Essentially, red flags go up when investigators spot an older person getting Social Security, but not visiting a doctor in three years or more.
Of the 41 defendants charged in metro Detroit since 2014, 31 have been convicted and sentenced; six are awaiting sentencing; four cases are still pending. Prosecutors in Detroit have obtained $4.4 million in restitution orders and another half a million dollars in restitution to other victims. However, to the chagrin of prosecutors, not everyone is going to prison for this crime. Of the 31 closed cases, only seven defendants got prison sentences—the longest one being three years. One expert believes the age of the defendants is a key factor. “By the time they’re caught, they’re in their 60s or 70s. The judges have a hard time sending older people to prison,” he says.
When a person dies, their Social Security benefits are supposed to die with them. According to the Social Security Administration, it’s typically the funeral home, family or a state agency that reports the death to the agency. SSA also urges families to make sure deaths are reported as soon as possible. But sometimes, the dead slip through the cracks. Whether out of desperation or greed, relatives have managed to hide the deaths of their loved ones so that they can collect their benefits. Some have gone to extremes.
Read the whole article, including several stories of successful fraud, at USA Today.