From the outside, Sandy Cloer’s office doesn’t look like much — not even a real office, in fact.
The three double-wide trailers strung end-to-end and plopped at the back of a barren parking lot hardly seem cut from the same cloth as Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort just a few miles away, dripping with glitz and glam and money.
A bill that recently passed the state Senate would take social assistance away from anyone using drugs by requiring state aid recipients to take a mandatory drug test.
Swain County’s Department of Social Services has started cracking down on welfare fraud after seeing a rise in violations.
“We have found that welfare fraud is on the rise,” reported Melissa Adams, a fraud caseworker, who spoke to the Swain County Board of Commissioners last week.
Since March 2011, Swain County DSS has helped prosecute eight cases of welfare fraud, each ranging from $4,500 to more than $24,000 in claims. It is currently conducting 238 investigations into alleged fraud. It is unknown how much money that translates to.
“Our agency has been working diligently in prosecuting welfare fraud,” Adams said.
Most investigations begin with a phone call from a concerned citizen or another agency. Since Jan. 1, the county has received 54 calls about possible fraud and initiated 15 investigations on its own after red flags were raised during the application process.
“We rely heavily on the reports we receive,” said Janet Jones, the chief fraud investigator with Swain County DSS.
Social service agents cited the economy as a likely reason for increase in fraud.
“Truthfully, it is probably the economy. People are struggling and looking for a way to survive,” Jones said. Jones has also started working on fraud cases full-time, allowing her to investigate a claim further to determine if it was a case of intentional fraud.
Sharon Blazer, Haywood County social services’ chief fraud investigator, agreed.
“I think, with the economy and everything, it is on the rise,” Blazer said. “I don’t think it ever stops; I think it just gets worse.”
The number of calls that Haywood County receives regarding welfare fraud varies from month to month. Some of the complaints can be difficult to verify.
Prosecuting welfare fraud can be difficult if the county cannot prove that someone intentionally deceived the system. Either they claim that they don’t have a job or are double dipping into the federal welfare coffers. Some things, like the number of people who live in the home, are hard to substantiate.
“There is not a way for use to actually verify that,” Blazer said.
However, if a discrepancy is found no matter whether it’s intentional, inadvertent or an error made by the department of social services, the person receiving benefits is required to repay the money that they were not supposed to get.
The state of North Carolina has seen an increase in fraud overall as well. As of April 2012, the departments of social services were investigating almost 780,000 active cases.
From October 2011 to March 2012, departments in North Carolina have received more than 11,000 referrals about possible fraud. The claims are equal to about $7.1 million — a more than $1 million increase compared to the same time last year.
Although welfare fraud has been around for as long as welfare programs have existed, people are taking it to a different level to get by, according to DSS investigators.
“Now, it is going a little further,” said Pam Hooper, an investigator with Jackson County’s DSS. “It’s got everything to do with the economy, I’m sure.”
Jackson County saw its highest number of cases, investigating nearly 350, during fiscal year 2010. That number declined to 116 cases the next year, but Hooper said it is a result of policy changes. Welfare programs no longer take into account facts like how much money a person has tucked away in savings or whether they just bought a new car.
“Change in policy has made a big difference,” Hooper said.
In Swain County, Jones said, a new car purchase still sets off red flags and prompts DSS officials to look into that person.
Unlike its neighboring county, the number of cases investigated in Macon has stayed about the same, according to its DSS.
The county is currently investigating 68 cases, equal to more than $45,000 in claims.