Public assistance benefits, like public housing assistance and funds available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also known as food stamps, are benefits that exist to help the  needy.  When I say “needy” I mean people who “need” the benefits.  And, who decides who needs benefits?  The programs that administer them.   That sounds fair.  Each program has rules in place that determine eligibility, such as income, family composition or assets.  To be eligible for a program, the recipient must meet key requirements.  Again, that seems reasonable to me.  But, not everyone likes to play by the rules, and some try to defraud the system.  Fortunately, the authorities in Rockland County, New York are wise to this fact and, according to today’s Fraud of the Day article from the Rockland Times, are cracking down on social services fraud.  (Yes!!!)

The article reports that the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office has arrested seven men and charged them with welfare fraud, grand larceny and more.  The arrests arose out of an investigation centered on a local housing complex in Central Nyack where the defendants ranging from ages 26-55, are accused of collectively stealing over $300,000 in public assistance benefits through the submission of false applications to a local public housing authority and the Rockland County of Social Services Department between 2002 and 2012. The article noted that detectives executed five search warrants at the public housing complex and allegedly found evidence of “the defendants’ jobs, income, living expenses and residency” as well as evidence of “unauthorized person co-habitating at the various locations.”  Authorities also say they found evidence of theft of food stamp benefits and Medicaid services.

The arrests stem, in part, from tips provided by members of the community.  The District Attorney commented on the case, saying:  “Those who steal money intended to help struggling individuals and families will be marked for arrest, prosecution and prison sentences.”  Similarly, the Commissioner of Social Services said:  “It is crucial that we all take an active role in identifying fraud; and I encourage others to contact us if they know of or suspect fraudulent activities.”  (I love this!)

The seven defendants are, of course, innocent until proven guilty.  If convicted, however, they each face a minimum of one and three-quarters years in prison and a maximum of seven years in prison.

So, regardless of the outcome in court for these particular defendants, what can we learn from this case?  First, that this community is really coming together to fight social services fraud.  This case involved the cooperation of the Clarkstown Police Department, the Rockland County Special Investigations Unit, the Village of Nyack Housing Authority, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s Office of the Inspector General and the District Attorney’s Office.  (Total dream team!).  This type of partnership is a real model for other jurisdictions.  Second, tips from the community are invaluable in putting an investigation in motion.  Lastly, we can’t rely on tips alone.  Here, the community was willing to get involved.  That may not be the case everywhere.  The biggest lesson we can take away from this Fraud of the Day is:  how can fraud be uncovered if there are no tips?

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