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Cheaters beware

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Officials in St. Lawrence County are getting a very good return on a recent investment.

They’ve made a more concerted effort to investigate welfare fraud and crack down on those abusing the system. This has resulted in more than $20,000 in returned funds for June.

These investigations are being conducted by the county’s Department of Social Services. Staff members in this division have partnered with the district attorney’s office to examine accusations of fraud and recoup money paid out under false pretenses.

And the county is doing this in cost-effective ways. Instances of welfare fraud are handled through civil agreements rather than in the court system.

People found to have engaged in fraudulent tactics are asked to sign a disqualification consent agreement. They may pay the money back themselves or have their wages garnished to make restitution.

Programs impacted by welfare fraud include temporary assistance, day care, Medicaid, the Home Energy Assistance Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as food stamps. Because it involves the federal government, defrauding the food stamps program may result in repaying funds through federal income tax returns.

It’s wonderful that St. Lawrence County is having success recouping vital funds lost through welfare fraud. Government budgets are under incredible strains lately, and chasing those who would cheat the system is a time well spent.

But the process is very time-consuming, county officials have said. An investigation may take months to complete — and, in some cases, years.

It’s imperative that welfare fraud be investigated and reversed to the greatest extent possible. The sluggish economy has forced many more people to seek public assistance over the past few years, and this means that every dollar counts.

Here is where the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services can use help from all of us. Department staffers need assistance in keeping tabs on who may be defrauding the system.

Officials are asking residents to contact them to report any potential instances of welfare fraud. People making these reports may do so anonymously by calling (315) 379-2145 or by filing an online complaint through the New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance’s website (www.otda.ny.gov/welfare-fraud).

It would be easy for people to avert their eyes and pretend they don’t see welfare fraud when it’s going on. They may believe it’s none of their business and that it’s best for them to not become involved.

This is especially true of people who encounter welfare fraud being done by individuals close to them. Why should they report a good friend or loved one getting something from the system?

The most important reason to become involved is because we’re all being cheated when the public assistance system is defrauded. Government programs operate on money we pay in taxes and user fees.

There is never a good time for government programs to be abused. But with so many people now depending on some kind of assistance, we simply cannot afford to watch our tax dollars be wasted on individuals who don’t qualify for welfare.

We urge St. Lawrence County officials to continue the good fight of combatting welfare fraud. Residents must keep their eyes open for signs of potential problems and report them to authorities. Don’t become a co-conspirator by turning a blind eye to fraud when it occurs.

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