Know a cheater?

HARRISBURG — Scorned women may be the best friends of fraud watchdogs.

Tips from the public, many of which were called in to a year-old hot line, helped investigators cut off welfare benefits to more than 3,000 people last year. They saved the state $21 million.

The best ones come from people with inside knowledge that’s not readily apparent to caseworkers, said Lucas Miller, director of the Bureau of Fraud Prevention and Prosecution for the state Inspector General.

“It’s always the ex-girlfriend,” he said.

Often, a tipster has information about someone who doesn’t report the income of a spouse or paramour on an application for benefits.

Or a parent may take benefits for a child, even though the youngster has moved in with another relative, Miller said.

People in social service agencies say they welcome the vigilance.

“We are all stewards of donations or tax dollars,” said Lori Weston, executive director of the Community Food Warehouse in Sharon.

At Haven Ministries in Sunbury, shelter director Christy Zeigler said she checks names of people seeking help with a list compiled at the Salvation Army across town.

They began the practice after realizing that some people visit one charity to pick up food, then head to the other for more groceries.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” she said.

The state’s Inspector General is used to handling complaints from the public. Those tips led to about one-quarter of the $83 million in savings the office discovered in crackdowns of government departments and programs.

Most welfare-fraud investigations are triggered by caseworkers and staff in the Department of Human Services, said Ellen Lyon, a spokeswoman for the Office of Inspector General.

But tips from neighbors, relatives and concerned citizens are important, too, Inspector General Grayling G. Williams said in a statement.

“Phone and online tips can be anonymous, but it’s important they provide as much information as possible to aid investigators in identifying the recipient of benefits in question and the alleged program violation,” Williams said.

About one-third of tips received by the fraud investigators last year were not pursued because complaints didn’t include enough information, Miller said.

About 75 investigators work in the fraud-prevention office.

The bureau fielded nearly 17,000 public tips last year, involving welfare and other government programs. Miller was unsure how many originated from the hot line.

Miller said the public may not always appreciate the steps required to crack down on what seems to be obvious fraud.

For instance, someone’s online suggestion that he or she will sell food stamps for cash isn’t enough to cut off benefits.

Investigators must conduct a sting to complete the sale.

Also, while an expensive car can be a red flag, there is nothing illegal about driving a nice car while collecting food stamps, he said.

The tip line was created last year because of language inserted in a bill by Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.

“Every dollar wasted through welfare fraud is a dollar that comes from hardworking taxpayers,” Scarnati said.

Weston noted the vast majority of people who use government assistance follow rules and need the help.

About 1.8 million Pennsylvanians collect food stamps. About 200,000 get help through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program.

Those who flout the law, Weston said, are “a percentage of a percent.”

“We see that people need the help,” she said. “That’s why I do my job.”

John Finnerty covers the Pennsylvania Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com

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