Federal and state investigators plan to make it a lot harder for people like James W. Smith to defraud the government out of disabilities benefits.
Smith, a former IT supervisor from Hermantown, Minn., feigned early-onset dementia to collect more than $264,000 in monthly disabilities payments from the Social Security Administration and a private insurer before he was caught in 2012 and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
Social Security officials launched a specialized investigative unit called Cooperative Disability Investigations (CDI) in 1997 to head off and prosecute people like Smith, and they have been expanding it since with a goal of establishing offices in every state.
On Wednesday, the agency announced that a CDI office in St. Paul would join 36 others across 31 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The seven-person Minnesota unit is a joint initiative by the Social Security Administration, its Office of Inspector General, Minnesota Disability Determination Services and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
Michael D. Robinson, Social Security’s assistant inspector general for investigations, and Nancy Berryhill, deputy commissioner for Social Security operations in the Chicago office, said the CDI program has saved $3.3 billion in Social Security benefits and $2.25 billion in other benefits, such as Medicare.
Yet disability fraud has continued to rise. Robinson said that in 2014, 75 percent of the Social Security inspector general’s caseload involved disabilities fraud. In 2015, it climbed to 86 percent.
Many people need and deserve those disabilities benefits, Robinson said. “So when you see someone out there taking advantage of the system … we want to make sure they are properly held accountable.”
People try all kinds of ways to get benefits they’re not entitled to, Robinson said. They provide bogus information on applications. They fail to report information that would disqualify them. And they work with others who provide bogus documents in an effort to substantiate their claims for benefits.
“When you think you’ve seen it all, you probably haven’t,” Robinson said.
People can report disability fraud by calling 800-269-0271.