The advent of social media in recent years has presented easy, free ways to stay connected to family and friends, and these platforms allow us to post photographs and stories in an endless stream. It is no secret that the majority of social media users only showcase the happy, fun moments and deliberately leave out the messy, challenging portions. Who really cares? Well, the United States government might.
For years, President Trump and his administration have made it their mission to root out fraud and abuse in the Social Security Administration (SSA), specifically in its two disability benefits programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The Administration firmly believes that millions of Americans currently collecting disability benefits are not actually entitled to them, and one of the ways they hope to prove that is by monitoring your social media accounts.
President Trump is not alone in thinking this way—multiple conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, support his beliefs and actively encourage spending more money to enhance surveillance capabilities for SSA. They allege that social media monitoring already takes place in some capacity, so expanding these programs will inevitably uncover even more fraud and abuse. If these organizations get their way, front-line SSA workers will begin monitoring claimants at the initial stages of their applications.
Although an increase in the number of cheaters identified through such a surveillance program is likely, the potential damage it can cause to innocent applicants cannot be overstated. Social media profiles are frequently misleading for multiple reasons, including the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Similarly, the time when a person posts a picture may have nothing to do with when it was taken; for example, if a claimant who alleges debilitating back pain posts a picture of him ziplining in Bora Bora, an SSA surveillance worker cannot verify when the photograph was actually taken. And what about people whose disabilities cause episodic symptoms or flare-ups? Every human being has good and bad days, and that fact of life does not change just because one is disabled.
Privacy concerns aside, the data simply does not back up the conservative push toward increased surveillance of disability applicants and beneficiaries. In fiscal year 2018, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for SSA reported $98 million in recovered funds through settlements, restitution, and fines as a result of SSA fraud investigations, and these were monies collected over several years, not just in 2018. To keep the data in perspective, SSA paid out $197 billion to SSDI and SSI beneficiaries in 2018 and the $98 million recovered over several years represents .0005% of what was paid in 2018.
Before you believe the hype, it’s important to remember that not all improper payments made by SSA and subsequently collected through their investigations are fraudulent. Most times they occur due to administrative delays in modifying benefit amounts and correcting lost or inaccurate paperwork.