FOX 11 Investigates: Social Security fraud

FOX 11 Investigates: Social Security fraud
FOX 11 Investigates: Social Security fraud

For nearly three years, James Mereness of New London raked in thousands of your tax dollars with little effort.

Court records show he used your tax dollars as spending money, even using it to buy a new vehicle.

There was just one problem: The $41,868 he brought in wasn't supposed to be his. It was intended to help him raise his son.

Carol Heinz is Mereness' ex-wife. When asked what she thought when she found out about the $40,000, Heinz replied, "I couldn't believe that a dad would do that to his own child."

Heinz and Mereness divorced in 1999 when their son was just four years old. Federal court records show Heinz has had sole custody of the child ever since. The boy has gone to school in Kimberly since kindergarten, while his dad lived 30 miles away in New London. Yet the Social Security Administration didn't know that.

Here's how it happened: Investigators say Mereness was receiving disability payments from Social Security. Since he had a child who was under 18, he could qualify for additional payments to care for his son."

According to federal court records, in August of 2007, Mereness applied for benefits for his son, telling the Social Security Administration that the child lived with him. That's all he had to do.

The money started flowing into Mereness' account the very next month.

Federal prosecutors say "None of the funds received were ever used for the benefit or support of the child."

"To know that he was sitting there and just pocketing money and spending it all, it wasn't like he was putting it in an account and saving it for his son. He actually was spending all of it," Heinz said.

When asked how easy it was for her ex-husband to pull off, Heinz replied, "I think it was one piece of paper. I think they believed everything he wrote down."

The Social Security Administration is responsible for approving applications.

Spokesman Doug Nguyen from the agency's Chicago office refused to talk with FOX 11 for this story saying in an email, "We don't do on-air interviews." He also refused to answer any questions about Mereness' case because of privacy laws.

In an email, Nguyen defended the Social Security Administration writing, "We inform applicants that they can be held legally responsible for giving us false information." He added that an "...applicant must attest to the truthfulness of their statements..."

Basically, it's up to the applicant to tell the truth and the Social Security Administration takes them at their word.

Three years and more than $40,000 later, the Social Security Administration finally caught up with Mereness. Just last year, he was convicted of one count of Social Security Fraud and sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.

The Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General is responsible for investigating fraud.

Andrew Cannarsa, from agency's office in Baltimore, Maryland, did speak with us.

"There is monitoring of rep payees and SSA in its integrity efforts will occasionally, periodically check the statements that you're making," Cannarsa said.

Sometimes, it just takes time to uncover fraud.

"SSA takes those sworn statements and then will do the verification as workload and resources and staffing allows," Cannarsa said. "In this case, it was three plus years that this individual was making those statements."

According to the Office of Inspector General, the agency receives more than 150,000 fraud allegations every year. In 2013, the agency closed 10,000 cases worth $500 million, including 593 cases which were similar to the Mereness case.

Even though it took three years to find out Mereness was lying, Cannarsa says the important thing is that he was eventually caught.

"Hopefully this serves as a deterrent to others who assume they can make any statement to SSA and say oh, they probably won't get around to checking it. Because as this case shows SSA did get around to it," Cannarsa said.

Carol Heinz would prefer to see fraud prevented in the first place.

FOX 11 Investigates asked Heinz if this case could have been prevented. She replied, "Easily."

In addition to his 10-month prison sentence, Mereness also has to pay back the money he received.

FOX 11 Investigates contacted Mereness in federal prison for this story but he declined to do an interview.