Digital Forensics a Key to Unlocking Social Security Fraud Cases

Beyond the Numbers

Friday, July 18, 2014
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The Office of External Relations

As you might know by now, under the Inspector General’s Immediate Office are five major OIG components, including us: the Office of External Relations. Something you may not know is that, within the Office of Investigations, there’s a group of investigators and analysts who play an integral role in many of the Social Security fraud cases that our special agents pursue every day across the country.

The Digital Forensics Team (DFT) is part of the OIG’s Forensic Intelligence and Analysis Division. Led by an OIG special agent, OIG computer forensic specialists work in a technology lab analyzing data sources like smartphones, tablets, and computers of all types. They collect case-breaking evidence to assist our special agents with their criminal investigations.

The DFT does everything from examine suspected criminals’ social media accounts, to retrieve deleted or hard-to-find files on computer hard drives. These specialists are constantly training to stay on top of technological changes and up-to-date with the latest-and-greatest forensic software and communications devices.

The DFT’s work often goes unnoticed by the public, so we thought we’d share a few examples of the many cases they’ve helped our special agents resolve.

  • In a February 2014 investigation, the Atlanta Cooperative Disability Investigations Unit requested that DFT collect electronic evidence from a man suspected of Social Security disability fraud. The team examined the man’s social media profiles, and secured an enormous amount of evidence that the suspicion was well-founded—that he was not as disabled as he claimed to be. The DFT found evidence that he had concealed his self-employment as a successful hair-model photographer and videographer from SSA, by using an online alias. By matching the profile of the online alias to the suspect, DFT confirmed that despite having a job, he was still collecting disability benefits. As a result of our investigation, SSA terminated the man’s Social Security benefits, resulting in projected savings of almost $150,000 to SSA. 
  • Another DFT social media examination played a significant role in the recent sentencing of a convicted felon who illegally possessed firearms and fraudulently collected disability benefits. DFT recovered online evidence of the woman’s “ownership and operation of a large-scale dog breeding business” of nine years (during which time she was also receiving disability benefits). This evidence allowed our special agent to obtain a search warrant for the suspect’s home, which led to the discovery that she illegally possessed five firearms.  The firearms were seized and forfeited; in June, the woman was sentenced to five months in jail and ordered to repay more than $47,000 to SSA. 
  • As we said, the DFT doesn’t just gather evidence from websites; it also specializes in digital document retrieval. In an April 2013 investigation, the DFT helped uncover a former Tennessee-based SSA employee’s extortion scheme. The DFT’s forensic examination revealed evidence that the employee created and sent false “SSA communications and correspondence” to his victims, telling them he would not process Social Security payments owed to them unless they paid him a fee. He would extort “half of the money as payment for his efforts prior to processing their checks.” The man resigned from his SSA position in April 2013; in May 2014, he pleaded guilty to extortion and bribery and was sentenced to a year in prison.

For more case highlights, please visit the Investigations page. And feel free to let us know in the comments section below what other aspects of the OIG’s work you might want to read about in this space.