For as long as they have existed, benefit programs that make up the social safety net in America have received intense scrutiny, mainly from conservative groups trying to root out fraud and abuse that they use as justifications for limiting access to these programs. In the age of social media, many recipients of or prospective applicants for disability benefits through Social Security are understandably concerned that Social Security Administration (SSA) will spy on them. But are these concerns warranted?
Although instances of fraud in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs are rare, they do exist. In 2014, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) used social media to arrest over 100 people who defrauded SSA out of millions of dollars. In the fiscal year 2018, the OIG reported $98 million recovered in fines, settlements, judgments, and restitution as a result of fraud investigations that traced improper payments.
Although $98 million is a substantial sum, it is small compared to the $197 billion that SSA paid out in benefits during the same fiscal year. And the data is easily manipulated to make it appear as though the $98 million represented benefits paid out in 2018 when, in reality, it represents benefits paid out over several years.
It is also important to understand that not all improper payments are the result of beneficiary fraud. More often, these errors occur due to paperwork mistakes or administrative delays on SSA’s end in adjusting benefit amounts.
Yet, conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation insist cheating and fraud run rampant through the SSDI and SSI programs. In recent years, the Heritage Foundation has convinced Congress to ramp up anti-fraud efforts, particularly social media surveillance. During the Trump Administration, SSA looked into expanding its front-line monitoring capabilities to catch fraudulent claims at their initial stages rather than after benefits had been awarded.
In opposition to these efforts, disability advocates argue that social media often paints inaccurate pictures of users. Misleading evidence abounds, since it is not always clear when photographs were actually taken, and not all legitimate disabilities manifest themselves in ways that stop individuals from participating in activities that might otherwise appear suspicious.
Surveillance seems unnecessary because of SSA’s Continuing Disability Review (CDR) program, wherein the agency ensures that beneficiaries who continue to receive monthly payments remain entitled to receive them because their disability status has not changed. Depending on the type and severity of your disability, a CDR may be conducted every 3-7 years.
The CDR program notwithstanding, SSA does have surveillance methods at its disposal if it receives a complaint or notices red flags. SSA can utilize social media monitoring, direct observation, and/or video surveillance to investigate potential fraud, but situations warranting this level of intervention are infrequent.
Remember, if you have been honest throughout your application, you have nothing to worry about. But you can help protect yourself by enhancing the privacy settings on your social media accounts and being careful about what you post.