$750k in fraudulent, improper food stamp payments recovered

After two stellar years, Montgomery County’s Investigation and Recovery Unit has already recovered about $744,000 in improper food stamp payments through early May, a record-setting pace for collections.

Last year, the unit collected about $1,028,000 in overpayments from recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the food stamp program), which was the largest haul since 2000.

The unit’s blazing start to the year illustrates how it is focused more heavily on collections and getting people to repay what they owe, Kandyce Robinson, Investigation and Recovery supervisor.

“We do payment arrangements that are more flexible with individuals that allow them to make payments,” she said.

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Food stamp benefits are distributed through the Montgomery County Department of Job and Family Services.

In 2016, Montgomery County residents received nearly $116 million in food stamp assistance.

The Investigation and Recovery Unit is tasked with preventing, detecting and prosecuting fraud in the program and recovering over-payments.

Through May, the unit has recovered more public assistance funds than it did in all of 2013 and is expected to blow past the 2014 total soon. In both 2015 and 2016, the unit recovered more than $1 million. The high-water-mark for collections was $1.4 million in 1999.

“Montgomery County is also ranked the no. 1 metro county for recovering fraudulent assistance,” said Patrick Bailey, deputy assistant director of the Montgomery County Department of Job and Family Services. “We are no. 2 across the entire state of Ohio.”

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About three-fourths of over-payments stem from fraudulent activities ($700,000 in 2016), officials said, and the rest is attributable to unintentional household-reporting errors.

Last year, the unit kicked 527 people off the program for at least one year due to fraud.

Investigators identify fraud through referrals from community members and the state, and public assistance caseworkers will flag suspicious or unusual payments or activities, Robinson said.

The unit monitors reports for employment verification, address changes and out-of-state usage of program benefits, which can indicate if recipients are not actually Ohio residents, she said.

Investigators also rely on a fraud hotline (937-225-6035) that allows people to anonymously report suspected fraud 24/7. The hotline received 1,108 calls in 2016.

The unit also has benefited from an online e-mail box that people can use to report fraud, and it is now uses LexisNexis to help locate people, officials said.

Investigators recover improper payments by charging customers directly, taking their benefits and seizing their federal tax refunds. Recipients who are caught defrauding the program can be kicked off the rolls for a year or more or permanently, depending on the level of offense.

A common misconception is that the food stamp program lacks accountability, but it is extremely valuable and the investigation unit ensures that it is repaid when funds are wrongly distributed, said Montgomery County Administrator Joe Tuss.

“It’s a story that doesn’t get told enough,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, in the past has estimated that about 1 percent of benefits are trafficked and misused.

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