BALTIMORE - U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein bristles at the idea of anyone lying to get Social Security benefits they don’t deserve.
Rosenstein, Maryland’s top federal attorney, recalled one case his office prosecuted earlier this year in which the defendant collected $190,000 of his deceased grandfather’s Social Security benefits. His grandfather had been dead for 18 years.
The defendant, Robert Errol Jackson, was sentenced to 33 months in prison, Rosenstein said.
“It’s outrageous,” Rosenstein said. “It’s offensive that some people would misrepresent their condition and circumstances to collect more money.”
Rosenstein said the number of Social Security fraud cases his office has received has jumped in recent years, the result of the U.S. Social Security Administration’s renewed focus on such crimes.
Two years ago, through a Social Security initiative, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore added an attorney dedicated to benefits fraud cases. From October 2012 through April of this year, Rosenstein said, 15 defendants were convicted.
Previously, the Social Security Administration had opted to handle these matters administratively, Rosenstein said.
A spokesman for the SSA said the number of fraud allegations seems to be growing, and the administration is planning to expand a program aimed at preventing fraudulent use of disability benefits to Baltimore.
The SSA’s Office of the Inspector General said its investigators opened 8,082 cases last fiscal year nationally, and almost 80 percent of them were related to disability fraud.
“[The amount of fraud allegations] we’ve received in recent years is on an upward trend, but that could be due to other factors such as a growing number of people receiving disability benefits, and our own public outreach efforts,” said Andrew Cannarsa, an administration spokesman.
Insurance fraud cases up in Maryland
Complaints of insurance fraud in general are increasing by a rate of between 10 and 20 percent each year since 2008, according to data from the Maryland Insurance Administration.
Last year, there were 4,638 complaints of insurance fraud in Maryland. That’s up from 1,300 five years earlier, according to the Maryland Insurance Administration.
But relatively few of those complaints result in actual cases. In 2013, state investigators report more than 3,800 of the cases were closed at their initial screening.
The office received 64 complaints of false application of disability fraud last year, compared with 37 the year before.
Cannarsa said it’s not always easy tracking cases of disability fraud. Social Security must take disability applicants, their doctors, and their representatives at their word when applicants allege they are too disabled to work.
“Social Security forms clearly state that it’s against the law to lie or withhold information to qualify for benefits, but some people will do it nonetheless,” he said.
Cannarsa said the SSA’s Cooperative Disability Investigations program, which roots out suspicious disability claims at the application stage, has led to more than $4 billion in savings for Social Security and other federal and state benefit programs.
The program has 25 units across the country, and the SSA is in the process of opening a 26th one in Detroit. The SSA has plans to open a unit in Baltimore within the next two years.
“It’s much more effective to prevent an improper payment from occurring than it is to try to recover funds that have already been paid to an ineligible recipient,” Cannarsa said.
Two Maryland men were sentenced to prison time for disability benefits fraud in separate cases this summer.
In June, Charles David Jones Sr., 58, of Frederick was sentenced to one year in prison for fraudulently accepting about $110,000 in disability benefits from the Social Security Administration from 2002 through 2011. He was also ordered to repay that amount of money.
Jones claimed he could not work, but owned and managed a restaurant in Frederick.
Earlier this month, a Baltimore City Department of Public Works employee was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but one year suspended, for faking disability claims.
Donte Patterson, 39, was also ordered to pay back the nearly $14,000 he received through false insurance claims.
According to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, Patterson bought a disability and accident policy through work and submitted phony disability claims for accidents that prevented him from working. He filed 13 separate disability claims that said he could not work, but continued to work for the city.
A consultant for the National Association of Disability Representatives said such cases are rare, but troubling.
“There is fraud. It does occur, and there seems to be some increase in the number
of cases,” said Lou Enoff, who works with people who are trying to get benefits. “I would say the amount of fraud is very small in total. But when there are 14 million people receiving benefits, even 1 percent is a big number.”
Some of the offenders can be hard to pin down, Enoff said.
“A lot of folks are working under the table,” he said.