March 29, 2019 / 10:36 AM / 21 days ago

U.S. government weighs social-media snooping to detect Social Security fraud

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Getting followed on social media could soon gain a new meaning for workers applying for Social Security disability benefits. The Trump administration is working on a plan to let the Social Security Administration (SSA) check up on claimants on Facebook and Twitter in order to root out fraud and abuse in the disability program.

FILE PHOTO: A sign is seen on the entrance to a Social Security office in New York City, U.S., July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

It is the latest move in a push by critics of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to crack down on alleged fraud and abuse. Conservatives have long argued that cheating is rampant in the program, and in recent years convinced Congress to fund expanded efforts by the SSA on anti-fraud efforts.

The idea of social media surveillance is getting a push from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Such monitoring already is done in some fraud and abuse investigations. For example, in 2014, the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) utilized social media reviews to help arrest more than 100 people who defrauded SSDI out of millions of dollars. Investigators found photos on the personal accounts of disability claimants riding on jet skis, performing physical stunts in karate studios and driving motorcycles.

The SSA now is looking at expanding social media monitoring capability to front-line agency staff who work with claimants in the initial stages, before any investigations have been initiated.

The idea already is drawing fire from disability advocates. They argue that social media profiles can offer misleading evidence, since dates when photos were shot are not always clear and because not all legitimate disabilities prevent participation in activities that might seem suspicious.

“The proposal to allow disability adjudicators to monitor or review social media of disability claimants is an unjustified invasion of privacy unlikely to uncover fraud,” said Lisa Ekman, director of government affairs at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

The prospect of such governmental surveillance is as disturbing as it is eyebrow-raising. Consider that workers and employers split a 1.8  percent payroll tax to fund SSDI. Now, in return, the SSA may be empowered to snoop around their Facebook profiles. And it is premised on a questionable assertion - namely, that SSDI really is plagued by rampant fraud and abuse.

For starters, let me stipulate that SSDI is not a perfect program. One of the biggest problems is the staggering backlog in appeals cases, with applicants often waiting more than 600 days for decisions on claims. That problem stems from a history of unwise slashing of the SSA budget by Congress in recent years that has left the program dramatically short-staffed.

Fraud and abuse do exist in the program, and it should be weeded out to protect taxpayers and legitimate claimants. But any program this large - public or private-sector - is sure to be a target for people bent on taking advantage, and critics often argue by highlighting sensational cases.

Mark Hinkle, acting press officer for the SSA, notes that the agency uses data analytics and predictive modeling to detect fraud, and has created new groups dedicated to detection and prevention. Asked to comment on plans for expanded use of social media to detect fraud, he confirmed that SSA investigative units already use social media, and that the agency  has “studied strategies of other agencies and private entities to determine how social media might be used to evaluate disability applications.”

He added, “Social Security does not currently pursue social media in disability determinations, and we don’t have other information to provide at this time.”

DISABILITY FRAUD IS RARE

Program statistics do not support the allegation that SSDI is riddled with fraud and abuse.

In the government’s fiscal-year 2018, the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported about $98 million in recoveries, fines, settlements/judgments, and restitution as a result of Social Security fraud investigations. The OIG states that most the recovered funds were from recipients of SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a means-tested welfare program for low-income seniors, blind and disabled people.

That sounds like big money. But in fiscal 2018, the SSA paid out $197 billion to beneficiaries of SSDI and SSI. And keep in mind that the recovered $98 million was for benefits paid out over several years, not just in 2018.

SSA data shows that the rate of overpayments for all its programs was well under 1 percent of benefit payouts in each of the last three fiscal years - and not all improper payments are fraud. More often, overpayments occur due to administrative delays at the SSA in making adjustments to benefit amounts due to errors and paperwork snafus.

A federal government list of programs at highest risk for making improper payments compiled by the Office of Management and Budget does not even mention Social Security.

Considering all that, I asked Rachel Greszler, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who studies Social Security, to justify the foundation’s steady drumbeat of accusations that SSDI is plagued by fraud and abuse.

She readily acknowledged that fraud rates are low. “Outright fraud is actually a pretty small component of the program’s problems,” she said. “Most people perceive fraud as a big issue but what they might consider fraud - people receiving benefits when they have the ability to work - is often just abuse of the system by taking advantage of certain rules and structures that allow people who can perform some work to nevertheless receive benefits.”

What constitutes abuse of the rules? An example, she said, would be claiming SSDI and receiving unemployment benefits at the same time, or claiming based on the argument that a disability prevents a worker from performing certain types of jobs.

Greszler and other SSDI critics often point to the rise of SSDI applications and award grants coincident with the rise of unemployment during the Great Recession as evidence of abuse. Some academic research has been done suggesting a cause-and-effect related to the unemployment rates, but this is hardly a settled matter among experts on SSDI.

Heritage has a broader agenda for SSDI reform. This week, it released a paper outlining 16 reforms aimed at improving the program’s solvency and integrity. (herit.ag/2FEBLDF) It includes the plan to use social media surveillance in eligibility determinations, tighter eligibility definitions and replacement of SSDI's progressive benefit formula with a "flat anti-poverty benefit." It also urges greater use of private disability insurance, especially among higher-income workers.

This agenda draws its fuel from the fraud and abuse arguments. So any debate about reforms should also include rebalancing our perspective on where the problems are in SSDI - and where they are not.

Reporting and writing by Mark Miller in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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