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Niagara County steps up the pressure on fraudsters abusing welfare benefits

The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office has taken a bite out of welfare fraud, and for that taxpayers should be thankful.

As reported in The News, Niagara County taxpayers saved more than $600,000 in overpayments in 2013. Then the department added a second welfare fraud investigator, which would easily pay for itself. Officials say adding a third would do the same.

The county should feel free to proceed. Take a look at the results: In May 2013, following a four-month joint undercover investigation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, the Sheriff’s Office, Niagara County Social Services, the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office and the Niagara Falls Police Department, two stores were red-flagged for having unusually high use of electronic benefit cards, for the size of the stores.

The cards are supposed to be used to buy food. That wasn’t always the case. Store owners in such fraud cases may illegally pay cash for cards, sometimes at 50 cents on the dollar. Or store owners may allow people to use the cards to buy unapproved items such as cigarettes or beer.

The investigation uncovered the type of activity that gets any hard-working taxpayer’s blood boiling. The sheriff’s Welfare Fraud Unit investigations into overpayments have produced major savings. Just in 2012, the work resulted in $393,000 in savings, a 372 percent increase from 2011. Investigations in 2013 led to another $605,000 in savings, up another 54 percent.

Even more impressive is that a number of people took themselves off benefits when word spread that the stores were under investigation.

Law enforcement officials have to work harder and harder to stay ahead of criminals intent on gaming the system. Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, said people are actually being trained in Southern states to get benefits and then are being bused to New York State. He also said he spoke with officials at the joint terrorism task force, who said that there are refugee camps overseas that have pamphlets telling people how to come to New York to get benefits.

If true, the idea that those who would cheat New Yorkers are willing to travel to do so is galling. Welfare fraud hurts those who truly need and do not abuse the benefits.

Whatever has to be done from a legislative standpoint to prevent welfare fraudsters from intruding on our localities and state should gain quick approval. Stopping welfare crime in its tracks pays off for law-abiding, taxpaying citizens. Not to mention for the people truly in need of benefits.