DOBSON — More than $400,000 in fraudulent food stamp benefits has been uncovered throughout the course of the past year and a half, according to Surry County Social Services Director Kristy Preston.
She said county commissioners authorized a new food stamps fraud investigator position in her department more than a year ago. She said that since then, the new addition to her staff has been hard at work in recovering dollars that have been improperly paid out in the county’s food stamp program.
Preston added that county commissioners have made pursuing food stamp fraud a priority in her department and called commissioners “extremely engaged in and supportive of the work social services does.”
According to Preston Surry County saw the number of residents who apply for food stamp benefits double around 2008. Currently, Preston said about $1.5 million a month goes toward food stamp benefits. Preston added that the expenditures are primarily federal funds and that the food stamp program is administered through the United States Department of Agriculture.
A number of factors are used in determining a family’s eligibility for food stamps. Preston said the program is income-based and also takes matters such as the number of people in a household into account in determining eligibility.
There are three types of food stamp fraud, according to Preston. Those include intentional fraud, inadvertent household errors and agency errors. Preston said that inadvertent household errors are the most common issue that her department finds.
“Somebody may forget about an insurance policy pay-out or something like that. That can effect their eligibility,” said Preston. “These mistakes are just that — mistakes.”
However, Preston said that many of the higher dollar fraud cases are an intentional program violation. She said this violation occurs when a person seeking benefits outright lies. According to her the violation often regards “under the table” employment.
Preston said her staff reports cases that seem to not add up to the investigator, who then proceeds with the investigation. Though more than $400,000 in fraud has been uncovered, Preston said the money hasn’t necessarily been collected yet.
“If they are still receiving benefits we will recoup the money through the benefits. We also will work with those who aren’t receiving benefits any longer in order to set up a payment plan,” explained Preston.
Preston went on to describe other methods that can be used in collecting such as withholding income tax returns.
That stated, Preston said her department is focused on providing for those in need, but they could use some help from the public to do it.
“We simply want people to be honest and thorough when they fill out their applications. We want to prevent these errors,” remarked Preston.
Recently, the Yadkin County Social Services Department announced that able-bodied adults without dependents will be required to be employed in order to receive benefits. Preston said that requirement is based on a county’s unemployment rate.
The unemployment rate is still too high to put the employment requirement back into place in Surry County. However, Preston said if the economy continues to improve her department will also soon put the employment requirement back into effect.
The county’s unemployment rate was low enough for the able-bodied employment requirement prior to 2009, according to Preston. However, the downturn in the economy around that period of time made the county eligible for a waiver to the employment requirement.
“We are preparing to implement the program without the able-bodied waiver. Eventually, we foresee the unemployment rate being low enough to do this,” concluded Preston.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or firstname.lastname@example.org.