Hank Investigates: State Welfare Money - WHDH-TV 7News Boston

Hank Investigates: State Welfare Money

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It's taxpayer dollars meant to help the poorest of the poor. State assistance for the most basic of needs - food, clothing and shelter. But we found Massachusetts welfare recipients using your money to go shopping in Florida! !In Hawaii! Even in Puerto Rico. And that's not all.

"I think there's a high likelihood of fraud," said Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation.

Our investigation reveals a disturbing pattern of suspicious out-of-state spending!

This is three months worth of the actual transactions made by welfare recipients-it shows exactly when and where the money was spent.

And look: in just 90 days, 2.3 million dollars of Massachusetts money was used-- in 45 other states!

Almost $2000 in Hawaii! $24,000 in Puerto Rico, $207,000 in New York, and $224,000 in Florida!

How does it happen? By law, Massachusetts welfare recipients must LIVE in Massachusetts to get their benefits! They're given these "electronic benefit transfer" cards, that can be used just like debit cards --to make purchases or get cash from ATMS.

It’s okay to use the cards out of state for any reason: Shopping, family emergencies or vacations but recipients aren’t supposed to live out of state for longer than two months in a row and still use their cards.

Yet over a period of THREE months, we found lots of examples of suspicious spending!

4 ATM withdrawals--at the same bank branch--in Isabella Puerto Rico

8 shopping trips to the same Lucky Mart--in Las Vegas Nevada

10 visits to the same Target--in Chula Vista California

23 stops at the same Wal-Mart-- in Lehigh Acres Florida!

Over and over, again and again..at the SAME out of state department stores, groceries, banks and restaurants.

"There's this pattern that somebody is using a card for weeks on end, it says, wait a minute who's using the card and why are they out of state?" said Widmer.

He's right--if those were the same people using their welfare money out of state for that long--that’s illegal. Is that what's happening? The Division of Transitional Assistance--the state agency in charge of this money---refused to tell us.

"Why can't you tell us that?" asked Hank.

“For privacy and confidentiality concerns of our clients," said Commissioner of the Mass. Division of Transitional Assistance, Julia Kehoe.

Kehoe insists her office runs reports every sixty days looking for fraud – and when they find it they stop it.

So how come these cards are being used for much longer than that?

"This is someone spending money in Hawaii, and Nevada and Puerto Rico and Florida. Does this seem suspicious to you at all?" asked Hank.

“Oh yeah!” said Kehoe.

When officials do find an out-of-state spender ripping off the system, they tell us, it's basically impossible to punish the person, or even get the money back. In the newsroom, I'm Hank Phillippi Ryan.

(Copyright (c) 2011 Sunbeam Television Corp. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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