Teresa Flowers seemed to be able to do everything. She operated a small business, hosted a radio show and worked as a professor of photography at a local university. At the same time she was also receiving Social Security benefits because she claimed she was afflicted with a debilitating disease that limited her lifestyle. On October 2, 2012, Flowers pleaded guilty to making false claims to receive medical benefits and ordered to serve six months probation.
The Flowers case was one of 368 allegations of fraud investigated last year by the Utah Attorney General’s Office and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Social Security Administration (SSA). In fiscal year 2012, SSA denied claims in 157 fraud cases and saved $21,424,033 from federal programs.
“The partnership between the Attorney General’s Office and Social Security Administration has been a huge benefit for taxpayers,’ says Utah Attorney General John Swallow. “For every dollar spent to investigate fraud, we recover ten dollars for taxpayers.”
The state and federal investigators for the Salt Lake City Cooperative Disability Investigation Unit often shoot surveillance video to help document whether people receiving benefits are truly disabled. However, some suspects are often providing the most damaging evidence by posting videos on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. Here are some examples of some recent cases:
• A 40-year-old man had been collecting disability benefits for nearly 18 years because he said he was badly impaired by depression, anxiety, asthma, obesity and sore muscles that he was unable to leave his house. His benefits ended after he posted videos showing him rocking out to heavy metal music, swinging on a swing set and riding a scooter.
• A 37-year-old man claimed he was no longer able to work because of a broken heel bone, partially immobile ankle, chronic pain, arthritis and depression. Investigators watched him drive a truck, walk while carrying a baby seat and then run away when they attempted to interview him. His truck and t-shirt indicated he had a business for buying antlers.
• A 31-year-old woman had been getting benefits for four years because she said her mental disorders gave her low energy and it was too traumatic to be in public. Her benefits were cut after investigators found newspaper articles about her being “constantly involved in music projects,” YouTube videos of her performances, Facebook posts about the venues she was playing and investigators witnessed her perform at a concert for several hundred people.
• A 50-year-old woman was collecting benefits because she said her fibromyalgia, PTSD, degenerative disease, acid reflux, anxiety, stroke and restless leg syndrome made it difficult for her to walk and unable to work. Surveillance videos show her walking sometimes with a cane but many times she was seen walking normally without assistance. She was also seen climbing up to wash the top of her SUV and even told investigators she just went riding on her ATV the previous weekend.
“We want to make sure that people who truly have disabilities get the benefits they need but we have zero tolerance for fraud,” says Wilbert M. Craig, Special Agent in Charge, Denver Field Division, Office of Investigations, Office of Inspector General for SSA. “Our efforts to safeguard American tax dollars would not be possible without our strong federal and state partnership.”
The OIG Fraud Hotline is a place for the public to report any type of fraud related to Social Security programs. The number is 1-800-269-0271 or fraud can be reported online at http://oig.ssa.gov/report. A compilation of surveillance and social media videos involving Utah cases can be found here http://youtu.be/sjKPdQaQFBc.