BUFFALO, NY - The recent arrests of more than a dozen suspects on charges of welfare fraud in Niagara County underscores continued problems with abuse of public assistance dollars.
Despite efforts to curb the abuse, millions of taxpayer dollars are still going astray.
The Niagara County Sheriff's Department says the arrests were part of a four month sting, culminating with raids on two stores. But investigators, due to the status of the probe as still "ongoing", refused to identify those businesses, which they allege facilitated welfare fraud.
In December 2012 (the latest month for which statistics are available) there were 3,186,236 New Yorkers receiving SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) to the tune of $485,025,573 according to the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
Federal studies suggest that 2% of welfare benefits are obtained fraudulently, would could also suggest that $9.7 million were lost to fraud in New York just in December, before a single item food stuff was purchased.
"People are outraged when there's misuse of the welfare system," said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace.
In Chautauqua County, the number of arrests for welfare fraud have actually fallen in the last year, and according to Gerace part of that is because his county, like others, has taken measures to try to ensure only those entitled to benefits are receiving them in the first place.
"There has been more attention paid by our department of Social Services to what's called front end detection," Gerace told WGRZ-TV.
But on the "back end", there is frustration, because with every move made to stem abuse, those bent on cheating the system come up with more ingenious ways to do so. And budget cuts took Gerace's welfare fraud department from two dedicated investigators, to one...an amount he says is insufficient to keep up with the roughly 200 active cases that person is now charged with investigating.
"There's no doubt about that. It should have been more than two to begin with, but it comes down to what you can afford as a county and that's what we could afford," Gerace said.
Still, Gerace insists the salaries of the extra investigators he'd like to have, would be more than covered by the amount of fraud they could uncover and prevent....perhaps two or three times their pay. That is why he also believes the state should financially assist counties in hiring more investigators, because it is the state (and its taxpayers) which would ultimately benefit from stemming the abuse.
But welfare fraud goes well beyond food stamps. It also includes getting benefits for which one is not entitled, and using benefits they're entitled to for means which they are not intended.
Such was the case of an Orleans County man, who last year was found to be receiving HEAP, as well as Medicaid, while failing to disclose while applying for those programs that he was in fact receiving one thousand dollars a week for life from winning a scratch off lottery game.
Gerace says one program particularly ripe for potential for abuse is one in which certain welfare recipients are awarded monthly cash benefits.
"We've seen cases where they're getting money and buying narcotics with it, or they're using it for other reasons, which are other than what it was intended to do," he said.
Click on the video player to watch ours story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Dave Harrington. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2