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More than 1,000 dead people on welfare, audit finds

A state audit today found Massachusetts has handed out $18 million in “questionable public assistance benefits” over the past few years, including welfare to more than 1,160 people who were either dead or using a deceased person’s Social Security number.

The report, which covered food stamps, cash, and other benefits to low-income families, estimated that recipients using a dead person’s Social Security number alone received at least $2.4 million in between July 2010 and April 2012. It also flagged another $15 million in suspicious transactions from electronic benefit cards during the two-and-a-half-year period the auditor reviewed.

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State Auditor Suzanne Bump said she thought the bulk of the $1.7 billion a year in welfare programs the state provides each year was likely spent appropriately, but said she was disturbed that the state did not catch so many obvious signs of abuse or waste.

“It pains all of us in the auditor’s office to think that the programs’s integrity is not being maintained,” Bump said in a telephone interview. “The most frustrating finding is that we were able to identify so many patterns of activity that could have raised suspicions, but did not.”

The state Department of Transitional Assistance, which is charged with administering the benefits, told the state auditor almost a year ago that it was already in the process of addressing the issues, including comparing its list of welfare recipients to the Social Security Administration’s master list of dead people in July 2012 so it could end benefits to people who have died.

Yet a month later, in August 2012, the state auditor found a majority of the dead recipients it checked were still receiving benefits, including many who actually started receiving aid for the first time after the beneficiary supposedly died.

Stacey Monahan, interim director of the Department of Transitional Assistance, said last week the state has made significant progress in making sure benefits go only to those eligible to receive them, including matching its recipient list with information from other agencies, such as the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Revenue.

Monahan’s predecessor, Daniel J. Curley, resigned in February after Inspector General Glenn Cunha reported that the agency failed to verify recipients’ eligibility, potentially costing the state $25 million a year in unwarranted payments. The US Department of Agriculture has demanded the state repay $27 million in misdirected food stamp benefits alone.

In addition, the agency mailed voter registration forms to nearly half a million households in the state last year — but tens of thousands of forms were returned as undeliverable, suggesting the agency did not adequately track recipients to make sure they still lived in the state or were otherwise eligible for the benefits.

The state audit also spotted scores of other cases of apparent fraud, including 26 instances where people were using multiple Social Security numbers to receive extra payments, 21 cases where the same Social Security number was used by multiple people and 40 cases where at least two different people both claimed the same person as a dependent.

The state auditor also found another $15 million in suspicious transitions on electronic benefit cards - including nearly $5 million where all the food benefits were withdrawn at once; $4.6 million in transactions from distant states or territories (including Hawaii, Florida, and Puerto Rico); $3.6 million where recipients made multiple purchases or withdrawals within an hour; $1.5 million where recipients regularly rang up transactions in even dollar amounts (such as $100) and $840,000 where a card number was manually entered into a retail terminal instead of being swiped (suggesting a card user may have stolen the card number, but didn’t have the actual card).

The audit covered three main benefit programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps), Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and Emergency Aid to Elderly, Disabled and Children -- which together provide help to nearly 900,000 recipients in the state.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.
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