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State announces new initiatives to crack down on fraud

Fighting fraud that costs the state millions of dollars and impacts poor residents who rely on public assistance payments,The Department of Children & Families on Tuesday announced a new system to crack down on cheaters.

“Florida has the highest per capita rate of reported identity theft nationally,” with more than 70 percent of ID theft tied to government-related services, said DCF Secretary David Wilkins, speaking at a a press conference with Deputy CFO Jay Etheridge and Tallahassee Police Chief  Dennis Jones.

Wilkins said the state budget sent to Gov. Rick Scott includes $5 million to cover initiatives that will potentially save Florida $90 million. While $4 million of that budget allocation will address Medicaid fraud, Wilkins, Etheridge and Jones primarily addressed the identity theft issue.

Florida will be the first in the country to implement technology that can prevent cheaters from successfully applying for benefits or stealing them from a recipient, much the way the private sector  verifies information.

Wilkins said a pilot project that took place in Orlando was “outstanding” in spotting fraudulent applicants. The agency also discovered that there was “three times more potential fraud,” which is a felony offense, than anticipated.

Etheridge said that in 2011 and 2012, the Division of Public Assistance Fraud investigated more than 6,600 cases of suspected public assistance fraud. Just over 6,100 of those cases, roughly 92 percent, he said, resulted in either criminal prosecution or administrative disqualification and future benefit denial.”

People who cheat the system are “siphoning money away from those who legitimately need this assistance,” Etheridge said. When someone steals the identity of recipients on public service, Wilkins said, it deprives them and their families of food.

Wilkins said he went to Washington last month to talk to legislators about more aggressive policies. State officials also obtained a waiver from the federal government to enact the program.

Wilkins said changing the process has taken time partly because of federal concerns that a new method of application not deter “people who are rightfully eligible for these services.”  The new system, he said, hasn’t deterred any legitimate recipients from getting services.

Those who flunk the application process online can apply in person. The expectation is that cheaters will give up if they flunk the online screening procedure.

The time is also right for the program, Wilkins said, because "the volume of online applications has greatly increased. “Now 90 percent are processed through the Internet."

Jones said he wants to warn those who aim to cheat the system that "if you commit fraud, we will find you and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."

In another effort to combat fraud, the Legislature sent a bill (HB 701) to the governor that would prohibit the use of electronic benefit transfer or EBT cards at casinos, strip joints and other adult entertainment establishments.