Cases abound of Social Security checks cashed after recipients die

Jul 12 2011 - 1:28pm

NAPLES. Fla. -- In two grisly cases last year, two Florida women were accused of hiding their mothers' rotting corpses for years while cashing thousands of dollars of her Social Security checks.

In March, nine months after 87-year-old Gladys Andrews' corpse was found hidden in blankets in her South Fort Myers home, her 62-year-old daughter, Gail Andrews, was indicted on charges she cashed $73,715.70 in benefits checks.

That discovery was eerily similar to one on Florida's east coast a year earlier, when 90-year-old Timmie Jordan's mummified remains were found in her bed in her Indian River County home.

Jordan's daughter, Penelope Sharon Jordan, 61, was later convicted after she cashed $237,876 of Social Security and spousal survivor military pension checks -- and even diligently filed her taxes -- for at least six years.

Their cases are among thousands investigated by the Social Security Administration.

From October 2008 through March 31 of this year, the agency closed 1,226 investigations into suspects cashing dead peoples' Social Security checks, according to Jonathan Lasher, a spokesman for the agency's Office of the Inspector General.

A total of 305 defendants were sentenced and 52 avoided conviction through pretrial diversion agreements, he said, and the rest were disposed of through civil or administrative action.

Andrews and Jordan, both former teachers, joined other unusual cases in the past three years. Among them are a Brooklyn man who dressed in drag to collect $115,000 in Social Security checks and rent subsidies issued to his dead mother, and two New York men who wheeled their dead roommate to a Hells Kitchen check-cashing store with his $355 Social Security check -- emulating the movie "Weekend at Bernie's."

Some involve hundreds of thousands of dollars, but due to the statute of limitations, the government can only prosecute four years back.

A 2010 indictment handed up by a federal jury in Fort Myers accused Lisa Kay Maitland, 52, of receiving $167,352.07 in Social Security benefits for 14 years after the death of her adoptive father, Presler Throckmorton, of Lehigh Acres.

Throckmorton died in 1992 at 83, but his $2,650.22 monthly checks continued getting deposited. The indictment alleged $361,616.86 in overpayments in all.

Maitland, a Lee County legal assistant for 30 years, pleaded guilty in October to conversion of public funds for receiving $23,378.90, the amount deposited into her bank account from June 1, 2005, through Feb. 1, 2006.

At Maitland's sentencing in January, her defense attorney argued that a lawyer had advised her a joint account was the best way to handle Medicare requirements for her ailing mother's care, that she'd tried to report requirements for her ailing mother's care, that she'd tried to report the death and had used most of the money to pay her mother's hefty bills.

The judge didn't buy it.

"To me, it smacks more of greed than anything else," U.S. District Judge Charlene Honeywell said at the sentencing. "Perhaps she got used to the money coming in on a monthly basis."

Often, the government doesn't find out about the fraud until someone reports it.

"There are often projects, investigations or audits undertaken to detect this activity, such as an audit looking at Medicare non-usage," IG spokesman Lasher said of an older person who stops using Medicare yet continues to receive Social Security benefits -- an indication of "deceased payee fraud."

"Much of our investigative work in this area, though, comes from the same source as many of our best investigations -- allegations from the public to our fraud hotline," he added.

Sometimes checks just arrive in mailboxes, luring greedy relatives into fraud.

The Social Security Administration mailed out $18 million in federal stimulus checks last year to 71,688 dead people and $40.3 million in questionable disability benefit payments to 1,760 people six feet under, according to a 2010 report by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Compiled from government audits and reports by the Government Accountability Office, inspectors general and Congress, the report revealed more than $1 billion was sent to more than 250,000 dead people over 10 years.

"Washington paid for dead people's prescriptions and wheelchairs, subsidized their farms, helped pay their rent and even chipped in for their heating and air-conditioning bills," the report said.

Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told Coburn it would be "extremely expensive," maybe even "impossible" to determine if a person is dead or alive -- especially if a death occurred many years ago.

A Social Security spokeswoman said there were more than 92 million records in the agency's Death Master File as of Dec. 31, up from 80.6 million five years earlier.

"We depend on family members and funeral homes to notify us of a death," Astrue wrote Coburn in 2009. By law, funeral homes and medical examiners are required to report deaths by Social Security number.

But cases like Andrews' and Jordan's are the hardest to detect because the bodies are hidden, the deaths unreported.

Both women claimed they couldn't afford burial expenses and initially told investigators their mothers were staying elsewhere.


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