MIAMI — When a Tallahassee mother of four recently contacted state welfare officials alerting them that her food stamps and cash assistance account had been hacked by a crook in Miami, officials lamented that they had no way to replace the lost money.
But on Tuesday, Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins announced Florida was launching new technology to crack down on food stamp and other welfare fraud. He said the program will become a national model.
Florida divvied out roughly $27 billion last year in food stamps, medical, temporary cash assistance and other welfare programs. Typically, three to five percent of that would include fraudulent charges, although Wilkins said that figure was higher in Florida. He declined to give a specific amount.
“Florida ranks No. 1 in the nation for identity theft, and for far too long criminals have been gaming our systems and stealing from taxpayers and Floridians who are truly in need,” Wilkins said during a press conference in Tallahassee.
DCF obtained federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps, to pilot a program that uses computer technology similar to what credit card companies rely on to analyzes suspicious billing patterns to spot fraud before they are paid.
Now, when someone applies for welfare benefits, they will be asked a series of personalized questions that a crook would have no way of knowing. The program can also backstop against applications crooks have made on behalf of prisoners or people who are dead, easy targets in the past. Officials will also monitor social media sites to check for those who are selling, stealing and buying the electronic benefit cards used to distribute welfare benefits.
DCF analyzed 138,000 applications during the first several weeks of the pilot program in Orlando and found $210,000 in fraud, three times more than they expected to find.
About 10 percent have flunked the initial application. If applicants fail the computer test, they are required to do a personal interview. Roughly 90 percent of Florida applicants apply for benefits online.
The program, which costs about $1 million a year, will launch statewide in a few months, and is expected to generate $60 million in savings in the first year, Wilkins said.
The Legislature recently gave DCF an additional $5 million to crack down on welfare fraud, which Wilkins said will essentially pay for the program.
The new system also includes a program that double checks applicants financial assets to make sure they actually qualify financially for Medicaid and other programs they are applying for. Wilkins said that program costs about $4 million a year to operate and is slated to save $25 million this year.
DCF officials said the overhaul is crucial in a state like Florida, where fraud and identify theft are rampant. The Sunshine State has nine of the top 10 cities for identify theft reports, Wilkins said.
“If you commit the fraud we will find you and prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law,” Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones said.
Source: Associated Press