DOBSON — The Surry County Department of Social Services has announced a new local hotline that will allow people to anonymously report instances of public-assistance fraud.
The hotline number, (336) 401-8705, will be directed to a voicemail system that will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing callers to report information without having to speak to anyone, according to Ann Slate, program integrity supervisor for Department of Social Services (DSS).
There was a state-wide hotline already in place, or people with information to report could call the local office, said Slate, but now this new hotline is another option.
“Some people prefer to report at the state level, some people want to report locally, some want to talk to a live person, and others would rather speak to a machine and remain completely anonymous,” said Slate.
“Some people do not give important information or do not tell the truth when applying for help through their county Department of Social Services,” said Slate in a press release.
“Under North Carolina law, persons must give caseworkers all information needed to decide if they can receive benefits such as Work First Family Assistance, Food and Nutrition Services, Medicaid, Energy Assistance, Special and Emergency Assistance and surplus commodities. Those who do not report correctly commit a crime.
“The crime – public assistance fraud – is committed when people get or try to get help by giving caseworkers false and incorrect information, or do not give information.”
“Fraud is one of those things that you never really know about until you find out about it,” said Slate, adding that information from the public is a primary way to find out about instances of fraud.
“It’s not as big a problem as some people think it is,” said Slate. “And it’s not as small a problem as some people think it is.”
The department wants to educate people on what the policies are, said Slate. “People don’t always realize what fraud is.”
A person found guilty of public assistance fraud can be fined, placed in jail, or both. People guilty of Food and Nutrition Services fraud may get an even stiffer penalty. That penalty could include all the above, and people may not be allowed to get Food and Nutrition Services for one year for a first offense, two years for a second offense, and permanently for a third offense.
A first-time court finding of purchasing illegal drugs with Food and Nutrition Services benefits would make someone ineligible for benefits for two years, and misrepresenting identity or residence to get Food and Nutrition Services in more than one place results in a 10-year ban.
“If it’s happening, we have to get some tips,” said Slate. “We need a reason to inquire.”
When “referrals” – as Slate calls information that comes from the public regarding suspected assistance fraud – are received, they must be substantiated before action can be taken.
“Can we prove it, or is it just hearsay?” said Slate.
Slate said her office can receive one referral a day in some months, and maybe 10 of those 20-some instances will be substantiated, saying those numbers are consistent with other similar counties.
“I want to make people aware of the hotline,” said Slate, “but I don’t want to alarm anyone. The number is there if you need it.”
If citizens think someone is not being truthful with the county Department of Social Services (DSS), contact the local office at (336) 401-8705. This is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week fraud hotline and is completely anonymous. People may also call DHHS Customer Service Center at 1-800-662-7030, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The call is toll-free. Or call Surry County DSS at (336) 401-8700 and speak to a live person.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.