SIKESTON - Stories of able-bodied people "drawing a Social Security check" are all too familiar for many people in this area. If you ask around, it's not hard to find someone who can tell you about someone they know who has allegedly "cheated the system."
Evidently the Social Security Administration has heard enough: Sikeston was approved in September to receive funding for a law enforcement officer to be assigned primarily to investigating Social Security fraud.
"He actually started his duties in October," said Capt. Mark Crocker of the Sikeston Department of Public Safety. "He's part of a task force for the Social Security Administration, and he works out of our office. He's part of DPS staff."
The Social Security Administration is funding the position with the goal of "cutting back on Social Security and disability fraud," according to Crocker. "It was a request from the Social Security Administration. They had reviewed statistics and determined the Bootheel was disproportionately high in the number of people receiving disability."
The latest figures from the Sikeston Social Security Office show as of December 2003, there were 1,726 people receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits in Scott County for a total of $671,000 per month, up from 1,649 recipients five years ago.
The number of SSI recipients in New Madrid and Mississippi counties actually dropped since 1998 from 731 to 696 recipients and 1,123 to 1,066, respectively.
The dollar amounts, however, have grown from $233,000 in Mississippi County to $260,000 and from $350,000 to $367,000 in New Madrid County due to cost-of-living increases.
Total figures for the beneficiaries of Social Security disability program which may include SSI recipients among them, are not available for 1998, but from December 1999 to December 2003, they number rose from 1,765 recipients to 2,040 in Scott County with a total dollar amount rising from $1,008,000 to $1,348,000.
For both the Social Security disability program and SSI, "the definition for disability is the same," according to Vernestine Bounds, district manager for Sikeston Social Security office.
Examples of fraud include working without reporting it to Social Security; a unreported improvement of a medical condition; or even a medical condition that the recipient never actually had.
"He'll be all over the Bootheel area," Crocker said of the investigator, working as far north as Cape Girardeau, down to the Arkansas border and west as far as Poplar Bluff.
Crocker said Sikeston was selected as the base of operations "probably for central location."
The program will allow the Social Security Administration a chance "to see if its feasible before they expand it on to other areas," Crocker said. "It's kind of a pilot program. I think there were only two approved across the entire country and we were one of them."
The Social Security fraud investigator will be a familiar face to many Sikeston residents, although officials declined to name the officer as it may impede his ability to conduct investigations. "It was one of our existing detectives," Crocker said. "In the event of a major crisis, we can still call him in to do our work, too."
With the position being funded by the Social Security Administration, the money formerly used by the city to pay this detective can now be used by DPS to bring in another public safety officer, according to Crocker.