Welcome to the Pondera FraudCast, a weekly blog where we post information on fraud trends, lessons learned from client engagements, and observations from our investigators in the field. We hope you’ll check back often to stay current with our efforts to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in large government programs.
Donald Trump recently announced plans for a new child care and paid family leave plan. While I will not be offering any opinions on the plan or on Donald Trump as a candidate, I was interested to see that the announcement sparked discussion of government fraud, waste, and abuse. In this case, the discussion surrounds the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program because Mr. Trump claims that he will reduce fraud in UI by over a billion dollars each year to help pay for his proposed child care plan.
Paymentaccuracy.gov, a government website devoted to providing information on payment inaccuracies, estimates a 10.7% improper payment rate in UI for 2016 resulting in $3.5 billion in erroneous payments. While a small amount of this actually represents underpayments, the majority of the $3.5 billion is waste. The trick, of course, is reducing fraud without delaying benefits to those who are eligible and without spending more money on improving the system than you actually save!
This is where things get interesting. The White House Office of Management and Budget claims that UI program integrity improvements, over the next 10 years, would result in just $150 million a year in savings, or just over 4% of the $3.5 billion. The Congressional Budget Office’s estimates are even worse. They estimate annual savings of $40 million at a cost of $17 million per year, for a net gain of just $23 million per year!
These dramatically different viewpoints between Mr. Trump and government regulators point out two problems when discussing government fraud, waste, and abuse. On the one hand, aspiring politicians and much of the public dramatically underestimate how difficult it can be to detect, investigate, and enforce fraud findings. On the other hand, many government agencies only report on the fraud they know about and estimate savings based on using traditional techniques against those unrealistically small numbers.
Here’s what I can tell you from our experience working in Unemployment Insurance. By combining modern detection techniques with cooperation between states and the federal government, we could net far greater savings than are estimated today. Whether or not other facets of Mr. Trump's program are viable is up to you, the voter, to decide. However, I think we can all agree that there are better uses for those funds than making payments to fraudsters.
On June 9th of this year, Mike Carroll, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families provided powerful testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations. Secretary Carroll outlined some of the many successes Florida has achieved in fighting SNAP fraud. He also clearly articulated a point that we constantly stress here at Pondera. In his words…
“We are not talking about “mom and pop” storefront operations or cottage industries. We are talking about major criminal enterprises with ties to other serious and dangerous criminal activities including drug sales, prostitution and human trafficking.”
He went on to describe the SNAP program’s largest bust ever at a flea market in South Florida. Since 2011, the flea market had served 41,000 SNAP recipients and processed $89 million in transactions. Investigators found display stands using plastic fruit and vegetables, rotten produce, guns, and large amounts of cash at the retailers.
While 22 arrests have already been made, authorities still have a huge investigation in front of them. In addition, Florida is taking what they’ve learned and using it to identify other suspect locations.
This case, while large, is clearly not an isolated incident. Consider that even using the government’s own 3.7% improper payment rate translates to $2.6 billion per year in SNAP fraud and waste. Those numbers surely support a large number of organized schemes. So for those of you that think SNAP fraud is a “victimless crime”, it’s clearly time to reconsider your position.
I am often asked what motivated me to start Pondera. So… Here goes.
In 2011, after my previous company was acquired, a good friend working at Google asked me to visit their Mountain View campus. He was interested in learning how to embed Google products in large government programs like Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, and eligibility systems.
Over the course of a couple of days, I was briefed on Google’s products and capabilities and I was struck by the massive computing power that their customers could literally “rent” as needed. Having spent over 20 years in technology, it was becoming clear to me that cloud computing was more than the latest tech buzzword. But it was during a discussion about the Google Prediction API though, that my imagination was really piqued.
With Prediction API, I realized, government organizations could analyze huge amounts of data to predict future events and identify data anomalies. All without ever buying a single piece of hardware or software. Thinking back to my time working on large government systems, I realized that this new technology had the potential to solve one of the problems that had always bothered me: fraud, waste, and abuse.
Over the years, I had worked on over 100 large government projects. And it had always amazed me that despite the fact that improper payments often exceeded 10% of program disbursements, most government bids had only a handful of requirements to address the problem. My government colleagues explained that they were under such pressure to deliver their services with such limited budgets that they simply could not invest appropriately in fraud detection.
Sitting in that room at Google headquarters, it was apparent to me that emerging technologies offered a new way to solve an old problem. One week later, I founded Pondera and set out to change the fraud detection market. Five years later, we’ve helped our clients prevent and collect hundreds of millions of dollars in improper payments. And we’re just getting started...
Fighting fraud is an interesting challenge. When an organization shuts down a fraud scheme, bad actors don’t suddenly become good citizens. Rather, they evolve. They evolve by designing and testing new methods that, when they succeed, are exploited until they too are detected and shut down. In fact, many of the more enterprising fraudsters proactively try out new methods to avoid any “breaks in revenue”. This constant game of “whack-a-mole” is well known to program integrity staffs.
This ever-changing nature of fraud schemes demands an ever-changing detection system. If an organization’s fraud detection methods look more or less the same as they did the year before, I can almost guarantee you that their fraud rates have returned to the levels prior to the introduction of the detection systems. Bad actors will simply find another way to conduct their business.
For these reasons, it is important to be nimble in fighting fraud. Complex technologies and massive data warehouses will lose effectiveness over time. If it takes a year to negotiate a change order, to deploy new technologies, or to integrate new data sources, literally billions of dollars in improper payments can be lost. The trick is to stay even with or just a “step” behind the bad actors, not miles behind.
While all state agencies want to choose the right partner to help them with their fraud detection efforts, I would challenge them to ask themselves the following questions: How easy is the company to work with? How willing will they be to incorporate new technologies (even if not their own)? How important is fighting government fraud to their company versus everything else they do? How passionate are they about the problem? Honest answers to these questions will reveal a lot about the future success of your efforts.