“20/20” and Disability Fraud: Seeing is Believing

Beyond the Numbers

Date: 
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Posted by: 
The Communications Division
(Still photo of Lawrence Popp's disability review with Social Security. From a recent ABC "20/20" feature.)

 

A “blind” man driving—our investigators could see it, but they didn’t believe it.  

During disability reviews with Social Security, Lawrence Popp claimed he was blind and couldn’t work or drive without help—he needed the agency to continue his Social Security Disability Insurance payments, first approved in 2004.  

In reality, the Wisconsin man could see well enough to work, drive, and hide the truth from Social Security. But our investigators saw the real Popp, when they observed him driving and operating a water-ski boat, and discovered he was actively running not one, but two businesses.  

Popp pled guilty in April 2013 to collecting $175,000 in Social Security disability he didn’t qualify to receive. In January 2014, he was sentenced to a year in prison and was ordered to pay back all the money. When Popp’s prison sentence ended earlier this month, ABC’s “20/20” tried to talk to him, without success, in a feature about his scheme. (Check it out here to find out who reported Popp to Social Security.)

Popp’s story, while outlandish, is typical of the types of criminal investigations we conduct across the country. Our investigators pursue many cases of individuals who may exaggerate a disability, or conceal their various work activities from Social Security—or both. At times, our investigators will catch the disability beneficiary “in the act” of working.

For example, there’s the recent case of a grave digger in Texas—in December, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for collecting Social Security disability while working to prepare gravesites for funeral services. He would dig graves using a tractor and shovel, and set up and take down tents, chairs, and artificial grass used during services.

He performed all of these tasks while reporting to Social Security he couldn’t work because of back disorders. In all, he and his dependents collected almost $150,000 in payments—but now, they will have to pay all of it back.

In another recent case, a Massachusetts woman pled guilty to Social Security fraud and government theft while collecting Supplemental Security Income, which is only meant for low-income citizens. She worked for a family-owned emergency services business but “forgot” to tell Social Security that.

She admitted to receiving more than $47,000 in benefits to which she was not entitled; she also received rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but never told them she owned her own home.

And let’s not forget the case of the California psychologist from last summer. From 2006 to 2009, he received more than $80,000 in disability payments—while operating his own private psychology practice that reportedly generated over $1 million of income during those 4 years. He was also found to have committed hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax fraud for failing to report his self-employment to the IRS. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to make restitution.  

These are just a few people we have pursued for lying to Social Security or concealing information. As you can see, we will aggressively pursue those who defraud Social Security’s critical programs. Disability benefits are for those who are truly unable to work due to a disability.

If you suspect that someone is committing Social Security fraud, please report it through the OIG Fraud Hotline

To read about other cases like these, please visit our Investigations page.