Welfare fraud taking money out of taxpayers' pockets


Store owner Taz Zarca has been selling groceries in downtown Raleigh for more than two decades. He says 10 to 15 percent of his customers use Snap cards. Many of whom he knows and knows they really need the help.

“They do not have a job, they cannot get a job, they have kids, families, and they need a source to buy food,” Zarca said. “They need to eat.”

Of the 77,000 people in the state who get food assistance, not all legit.

“This is taxpayers’ money,” said Robin Greenwald, welfare fraud investigator supervisor.

Greenwald has spent years tracking down welfare fraud and now supervises Wake County’s tax fraud investigators.

“We get anonymous letters, phone calls, people walk in off the street,” Greenwald said. “The majority of our referrals come from case managers.”

She says in the last 12 months, investigators have received almost 1,400 referrals, 85 percent of which have turned out to be fraudulent claims.

“We do pursue it, and I don’t think the general public knows that we do,” Greenwald added.

Investigators do most of their work on computers, traditionally looking at things like voter registration, property records and motor vehicle registration.

More recently, they’ve turned to newer websites -- information sites like 411.com and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

“They may not want to report that they’re married or that their husband is living in the home, but you’ve got a current post on Facebook,” Greenwald explained. “You know, just celebrated an anniversary, had a wonderful weekend away with my husband, and you know, we just match that up to the information that we have in our records.”

With help from the internet and sometimes from the people who are cheating the system, Wake County has identified almost $1 million in welfare fraud over the last 12 months and recovered almost $750,000 of it.

How do they get the money if people don’t want to pay it back?

Paul Gross, who heads up the program, says in many cases, they just take it.

“We’re intercepting a fairly substantial amount of tax refund checks,” Gross said.

He says it’s called the Debt Set Off Program, and they use it all the time.

However, people caught stealing from the system not only have to pay back the money, but they are disqualified from the program.

The first offense is 12 months without food assistance, the second offense is 24 months and the third offense you’re kicked out of the program and may be convicted of a criminal offense.

In the last year, Gross says they’ve recommended 33 cases to the district attorney for prosecution.

That’s fine with store owner Zarca. While he does see real need, he has no sympathy for those who would cheat the system.

“I stand on my feet 15-17 hours a day, seven days a week, to make an honest dollar and to save a dollar for my children,” he said. “It definitely makes me mad when somebody gets free money for nothing just because he lied on the application.”

But for everything they’ve recovered, perhaps more impressive is the fraud they’re stopping before it starts.

ABC11 Eyewitness News was told that in an average month, $120,000 in fraudulent applications is caught before the first checks are cut. That’s millions of taxpayer dollars every year that Wake County team of investigators is keeping where it should be.

The program costs the county about $600,000 a year, but the county says it makes up for the cost by saving millions from being scammed.

Investigators also utilize Google a lot, typing in suspected scammers’ names and seeing if they’re self-employed or selling anything online that they’re not reporting.

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