9 Investigates public assistance dollars paid out incorrectly

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - Walking in to job hunt at a local Workforce office, Felicia Barnes told Channel 9 that she's one of the "good ones," using food stamps only because she needs them. She said she is eager to support herself again.

"It's very important. If I didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to feed my kids," said Barnes.

But the state said people like Beth Masker of Volusia County have more sinister motives. Masker was convicted last year of public assistance fraud worth more than $4,500. And she's part of a bigger problem, which has grown in the bad economy.

"That number has increased over the most recent years, really just in proportion with the record-breaking cases that we're seeing come in," said Carrie Hoeppner of the Department of Children and Families.

Since 2009, incorrect Medicaid, food and cash assistance payment have jumped: From $33 million three years ago; to $36 million two years ago; to $40 million last year -- a total of $98.2 million incorrectly paid over that time period.

DCF said the biggest portion of the incorrect payments originate with simple, honest errors: Applicants give the agency bad information in its online database, and DCF gives them a debit card with an incorrect amount of benefits.

That type of honest mistake accounts for 54 percent of all incorrect payments. DCF's own internal errors are 33 percent, and intentional fraud is about 13 percent. Much of the incorrectly paid money is never recovered. Of the $98 million mistakenly paid over the past three years, $43 million has not yet been recouped.

"You have to remember the population: They are either in poverty, they are working poor, or they are criminals. It's not easy really to get money back from many of those populations," said Hoeppner.

DCF distributes a total of $27 billion in benefits each year, so those incorrect benefits are a drop in the bucket. But to crack down, the agency says it is monitoring sites like Craigslist, where people try to buy and sell EBT cards, and the agency is also tracking people who repeatedly request replacement cards.