BY BILL WOLCOTT
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office Welfare Fraud Unit, which has made 19 arrests and placed charges against 23 people this year, has 133 open cases.
Deputy Amanda Irons is the Welfare Fraud Unit. The Lockport area resident took the job as the lone investigator last October. In 2009, there were three investigators at the sheriff’s office. In 2010 there were two. In 2011, it was cut to one.
Like many jobs, more is being expected of less.
“It’s busy,” said Deputy Irons, a veteran of the NCSO who has been on her own as investigator since October. “I have a lot of great support in Department of Social Services. They’re always there when I need them.”
“She’s humble,” said Capt. Kristen M. Neubauer who said she is not comfortable with a<\Bz14f”sans-serif”> welfare fraud office with just one person. “The cases are more and more and the personnel are less and less. We’re attacking them the best we can.”
Irons is very good at her job, according to her boss. Irons is rarely at her desk. She goes to Niagara Falls to pick up cases and coordinates her efforts with Cindy Caccese of the Department of Social Services to decide if the report is founded or unfounded. Irons also makes arrests.
Many of the cases stem from anonymous tips.
“Just like any other form law enforcement, we rely on the public to help us out,” said Deputy Charles Baker, a veteran NCSO officer who is now with the Criminal Investigation Unit. “They help us a lot. The more information you give us, the better.”
Baker was one of three members of the Welfare Fraud Unit in 2008. “It’s a busy, busy place,” he said, “We’re proud of what we do. Amanda has done a terrific job.”
There is an upward trend in abuse. In 2012, there was a total savings of $392,981 according to the sheriff department records. That money may not be recouped, but it is no longer going out to offenders.
Suspects may lie about Medicaid, who is living in their house and their identity. They may sell food stamps, work off the books or collect in two counties. Usual charges are grand larceny, welfare fraud and offering to file a false instrument — that is signing something you know is false.
Services providable by Department of Social Services are all investigable. The fraud unit works with the district attorneys office and the Department of Agriculture. Arrests are going up because cases are going up. Sometimes there are no arrests, but the perpetrator is stopped.
“We don’t look at it like we’re trying to knock people off the services. People need them,” said Neubaurer. “My family got them when I was growing up. It’s a matter of accountability. Any system has the potential for fraud.”
She added, “It’s not a question of working the system. Social Security is great about informing the people of everything they’re entitled to do, how to get it and assisting them with everything they need. The goal is not to hinder people getting benefits and kick everyboyd off. We investigate, like any other sphere of law enforcement. It’s our job to investigate anything that might be going on that’s inappropriate.”
Neubauer thinks the department would be well served with another investigator. There would be cost savings on things going out and actual recovery.