CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. -- Commit welfare fraud in Cabarrus County and you could now end up charged with a crime, or even go to jail.

Prosecuting cheats is a new tool to crack down on an expensive problem, funded by your tax money.

Cabarrus County has identified over a million dollars in assistance fraud over the last two years.

At least $151,000 of that amount is from people lying about their situation. Fifteen cases have been referred for criminal prosecution. At least six of those were this week.

It is a problem, said Cabarrus County Human Services Director Ben Rose.

Cases identified for prosecution have Rose s signature on them. Prosecutors are expected to review the cases soon, Rose said.

Anonymous callers turned in some of the culprits, who are accused of lying about their financial circumstances, in some cases for years, to get more money in food stamps, Medicaid and other programs.

Rose's biggest case is nearly $67,000 worth, which accumulated over the span of several years.

You could go to jail for this, it's that serious. And our hope there is we end up preventing fraud in the future, Rose said.

Before, the county disqualified welfare cheaters from assistance, fined them and made them pay the money back.

Now, it's taking them to court and charging them with a felony if the amount is over $400.

They need to take it to them, said David Spurrier, who says he receives assistance for food and is seeking assistance for his phone bill.

Spurrier lives with his mother. He says he made that clear to the county.

Rose says people on assistance that have others living with them and earning income but don t report it are some of the most common types of fraud they encounter.

Most cases are small amounts. Many include honest mistakes and aren t considered intentional fraud.

The county collected $231,018 in overpayments so far this year.

Cabarrus County has two fraud investigators checking out the accuracy of paperwork, conducting home visits and even reviewing grocery store security video to see if food stamp money is being spent as intended.

David Spurrier says welfare cheats should be prosecuted. He receives help for food and is seeking assistance for his phone bill. The idea of people cheating the system upsets him.

Yeah, I mean why would you do that? he said.

Karen Bailey applied for Medicaid Wednesday and also favors prosecuting welfare cheats.

Because the working people are taking care of these people and the working people are paying the price.

Gaston Counties also prosecute welfare fraud cases. Officials there say so far this year the county has recovered $456,178 in overpayments. There are 661 reports currently under investigation, but only one case has been referred to the district attorney for prosecution. Three were turned over for prosecution last year.

Mecklenburg County also prosecutes welfare fraud and is launching an awareness campaign next month.
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