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.
Several months ago, we wrote a post about the self-proclaimed “Mr. Social Security”, Kentucky attorney Eric Conn, who fled prosecutors in the face of a 12-year prison sentence. Conn had concocted a scheme where he bribed a judge and a psychologist to defraud the Social Security Administration out of $550 million. The colorful Mr. Conn made flamboyant claims on television ads and attended events with “Conn’s Hotties” (his words, not mine) to drum up business.
After cutting off his electronic monitoring ankle device in June, Mr. Conn had been spotted in various locations around the western United States. Now, it appears his days on the lam have come to an end as Honduran authorities arrested him outside a Pizza Hut restaurant. U.S. authorities are now working to extradite him back to this country.
While Mr. Conn’s experience certainly contains elements of humor, Social Security Fraud is a serious subject. Recent estimates peg the annual amount at around $10 billion per year. About half of this is in Mr. Conn’s “specialty” area of retirement, survivors’ benefits, and disability insurance.
At a time when people are replacing credit cards and ATMs with their smart phones, it seems that California is recommending increased use of armored cars. The reason? On January 1st, recreational marijuana will be legal in California but still illegal at the federal level requiring marijuana business to pay their sales taxes in cash.
The issue is that banks are still unsure of how to handle marijuana businesses’ money without being subject to prosecution for issues like money laundering. The Justice Department has issued “guidelines” to banks on how to avoid prosecution but most banks don’t consider guidelines as legal protection. And not surprisingly, the guidelines are confusing and incomplete. This leads to a cash-based business, which in turn creates the potential for fraud, money laundering, underreporting taxes, and a whole host of other issues.
In California, the marijuana industry is expected to grow to as much as $7 billion a year in revenues. In anticipation of this, State Treasurer John Chiang formed a task force to figure out how to collect and transport the funds. Their recommendation, among others, was armored cars. Ugh. But who can blame them? Colorado tried to set up a credit union specifically for the marijuana industry but it was denied by the Federal Reserve in 2015. So, there’s not a lot of great options out there.
I, for one, will be closely watching the rollout of legal recreational marijuana. With a healthy tax of around 15%, a University of California Agricultural Issues study claims that 29% of marijuana users may choose to buy the drug illegally. Those sales likely won’t be reported, won’t be taxed, and won’t end up in armored cars.
Anyone who has recently attended college or has a family member in college likely has some familiarity with student loans. In fact, 40 million Americans currently have student loans totaling an astounding $1.2 trillion dollars. Many of those who have applied for loans have been victimized by methods such as “advanced fee scams” that promise the best rate for an upfront service fee, or the ever-present loan elimination scams.
With easy access to stolen identities, fraudsters are now targeting the more lucrative loans themselves. Using stolen IDs, they enroll in classes which they, of course, never attend. Loans are made by the government, payments are not, and the unsuspecting “owner” of the loan goes into default when the fraudsters don’t make their payments.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a man was indicted last month for this exact scheme. He faces up to 20 years in prison for allegedly using stolen IDs to steal $150,000 in loans and grant aid. A quick check of the government’s paymentaccuracy.org website shows that he is not alone. Between the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program and the Federal Pell Grant Program, $6.1 billion was improperly paid in 2016 alone.
While many of the improper payments are made to people who simply do not qualify based on income, an increasing number of loans are being made to outright fraudsters. Some estimates place the number of known fraud ring participants as high as 85,000 people. This victimizes the taxpayer, of course, but even more directly the person whose identity is stolen. It can take months or even years to clean up your credit. That’s one lesson I hope I never need to learn.
As a country, we have become accustomed to reading stories about fraud in healthcare, financial services, and government programs. It doesn’t make it right, but it’s certainly not new. Now though, news comes from the American Red Cross that $5 million of Ebola relief funds were fraudulently disbursed on overpriced supplies, fake customs bills, and even non-existent aid workers. These scams will be familiar to regular readers of this blog as they are similar to scams run against domestic subsidy programs. But Ebola relief efforts?
Between 2014 and 2016, Ebola raged through parts of Africa, claiming over 10,000 lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. In response, the Red Cross collected and distributed over $100 million in aid, while doctors, nurses, and other volunteers risked their lives to save those suffering or at risk from the disease. Into this tragedy, naturally, came the fraudsters who recognized an ideal opportunity given the large amounts of aid money and the necessarily lax controls over disbursements.
Now the Red Cross finds itself having to apologize to donors who realize that 5% of their contributions were stolen. While I don’t know all the details about the Red Cross’s financial controls, I can only imagine how difficult a task it was to make sure money was distributed quickly to only well-intentioned people and organizations.
If anything, I believe this is one more reason for strong enforcement of criminal fraud after it has been committed. Trying to prevent fraud by adding bureaucracy and controls to the funds distribution process would likely add to delays during an emergency. Rigorous investigations and strong prosecutions, on the other hand, could act as a deterrent to future fraud. If not, at least it would prevent these fraudsters from plying their “trade” during other disasters.
Regular readers of this blog know that we often focus our comments on the fraud and abuses in government subsidy programs. Our intent is almost always to point out solutions that can make these programs more effective, rather than to question the existence of the programs altogether. In fact, most Pondera employees worked for government agencies in the past and recognize the good that many programs deliver.
The recent fires in California provide an example of government programs helping Americans in need. The fires, which tore through California’s wine country, including Napa and Sonoma, claimed over 40 lives and 7,000 structures, and displaced nearly 100,000 people. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed leaving families scrambling for shelter and food.
A number of government agencies sprang into action to help those affected by the disaster. While most Americans are somewhat familiar with, for example, how FEMA responds to disasters, other efforts are less obvious but very important.
For example, I took note of the combined efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to provide emergency food assistance to local residents. Using the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP), CDSS offered a month of food benefits to those who qualify. This is in addition to other waivers such as allowing existing SNAP beneficiaries to purchase hot foods (many lost their homes and by extension their ability to prepare foods).
Events like the fires in California, while heartbreaking, also provide us with a reminder of the important work done by federal and state government agencies. This is also a time to remember the important work that agencies do throughout the year to support Americans who truly need our assistance. We believe our job at Pondera is to help governments deliver better services by driving fraud, waste, and abuse out of their programs.
I once worked for a manager that operated under what he called his “Bucket Theory”. His theory went like this: hire successful people, throw them in a “bucket”, and see who can climb their way out. Those that did, he explained, were the type that could succeed at this particular tech company. Those that couldn’t climb out were soon shown the exit. Pretty Spartan of him.
When I founded Pondera, I thought it might be interesting to make modified use of the “Bucket Theory”. Here’s how my theory goes: hire skilled and dedicated people with diverse backgrounds and experiences, broadly define the problem that needs to be solved, then throw them in a “bucket” and ask them to come up with a solution for the problem. The only guidelines: treat each other with respect, expect mistakes, share in success, and “think outside the bucket”.
Turns out that this modified bucket theory works pretty well. I’m constantly amazed by the innovations made by Pondera’s employees. And walking around the office, it’s not unusual to see a former FBI agent working with a PHD in Learning and Mind Sciences, an Unemployment Insurance investigator collaborating with the former founder of a Silicon Valley drone company, or a data scientist talking with a Certified Fraud Examiner.
Since founding Pondera, I’ve read a number of articles about the importance of hiring staff from “adjacent” markets. For example, one article detailed how some skateboarders were able to help improve construction site safety equipment. And I think we’ve all seen images of football players in training sessions with ballet instructors. I imagine that the conversations between these two groups were equally as entertaining as the ones among Pondera’s employees.
So why don’t more companies take this approach? I think there are two main reasons for this. First, many companies start with or develop the belief (sometimes arrogance) that their way is the only way. Like the proverbial hammer, they subsequently see every problem like a nail. The second reason: it can be very difficult to maintain a healthy company culture across such varied career experiences. Success depends on a clear and transparent vision combined with world class human beings. I personally feel very fortunate to work side-by-side with such people in the Pondera Bucket.
Earlier this week, I was surfing one of Pondera’s internal messaging boards when I came across a photo of some painted rocks depicting flying pigs with multi-colored unicorn horns. It seems that one of our investigators is also a part-time artist. I must admit that I was confused by the subject matter. This is the response that I received to my question about the rocks:
Within Pondera’s Special Investigations Unit, you have to earn the flying pig rock by accomplishing something that others might consider implausible, so that they’d say “that’ll happen when pigs fly”… but more than that, you also have to do it like only a beautiful, magical unicorn could do it.
This is absolutely one of the most unexpected and satisfying things I’ve discovered in all my years in business. This tradition explains so much about Pondera’s success. We have a team of incredibly successful and dedicated people that continue to work on doing what many previously thought impossible. They do it themselves with only broad guidelines from the management team (hence my not knowing about the “pigacorn”). And they have fun while doing their work, taking pride in knowing how truly important it is.
While I continue to take pride in the success that Pondera is having fighting fraud alongside our clients, my recent discovery serves as yet another reminder of what makes this company go (dare I say fly?). I often say that everyone at Pondera left something great to join our team and align behind our mission. With people like that, I expect a lot more flying pigs and a lot less fraud.
A recent spate of high profile arrests of dentists is drawing attention to an often-overlooked segment of Medicaid fraud. Some unscrupulous dentists are exploiting gaps between what private insurers reimburse versus what Medicaid will pay for. Others are just brazenly breaking the law to rip off state Medicaid programs.
Consider these recent charges brought against dentists:
An Anchorage, AK dentist was charged with 10 felonies. His “care” included performing a tooth extraction while videotaping himself on a hoverboard. Naturally, he had to text the video to friends. He is also accused of giving expensive, and unnecessary, IV sedations to Medicaid patients and then performing unneeded procedures on his passed-out patients. Since private insurance rarely pays for IV sedation, he only performed this fraud scheme on his Medicaid patients.
A Fairfield, CT dentist who saw mostly elderly and indigent patients is accused of ripping off more than $900,000 from Medicaid by billing for services that he never performed. One hint that he may have not been acting honestly: he billed for both a cavity filling and denture procedure on the same tooth!
An Atlanta dentist was sentenced to 18 months in prison earlier this year for defrauding nearly $1,000,000 from Medicaid. Her unique talent included the ability to perform dental procedures in Atlanta while she was traveling out of the country.
Unfortunately, these cases simply support our premise that fraud will exist anywhere substantial amounts of money are exchanged in complex billing and regulatory environments. These, and other similar cases, serve as a warning that we must monitor literally every medical specialty reimbursed by Medicaid.
In their never-ending quest to circumvent the law, unscrupulous business owners are now adopting the use of so-called “zapper” software to avoid paying sales taxes. Zapper software automatically deletes a portion of cash sale transactions and then automatically reconciles the business’s back end finances to make it appear that the businesses paid the appropriate amount of taxes. This scheme reduces tax collections for governments and passes the burden to the vast majority of businesses who choose to act within the law.
Thanks to a crackdown by federal and local officials, recent arrests include $1 million in unreported sales at Cesar’s Restaurant in Lakeview, IL (home of the “killer margarita”) and $800,0000 at the Lao Sze Chaun restaurant in Milford, CT. However, a simple Google search will reveal that almost no city is immune to the zappers.
Zapper software is so popular that some businesses are now starting to offer it to their clients. In December, for example, a Canadian man pled guilty to selling zapper software to eight restaurants in the Seattle area leading to $3.5 million of taxes avoided. It is alleged that his company, which sells Point of Sale (POS) software, also sold the illegal zapper software through a subsidiary in China. After the sale of the software, they even offered to support their customers with their ongoing efforts to defraud the government.
Zapper software, while somewhat novel, is just another attempt to apply technology to skirt the law. And while law enforcement training and targeted audits will surely help detect some of these modern-age fraudsters, analytics that use peer comparisons, spike indicators, and other statistically rigorous detection methods can also help detect the problem early. Like the old saying goes, it takes fire to fight fire.
While I don’t think healthcare fraud is a particularly humorous subject, a recent case in Florida does lead to a few chuckles.
Earlier this year, a Northern Florida doctor pled guilty to falsely billing over $1.5 million to Medicare and TRICARE. The billings were submitted for a complex procedure that required the removal of skin and muscle. In reality, most of the procedures actually performed were for routine foot care, including toenail clippings.
So how did this fraudster get caught? It seems the authorities used basic peer comparison analytics to flag suspicious activities. In this doctor’s practice, half of his patients apparently needed the expensive foot procedure, placing him in the top 1% of all providers in the country for this service. This despite the fact that Ocala is only the 45th most populated city in, not even the nation, but the state of Florida with fewer than 60,000 citizens!
The doctor tried to cover his tracks by falsifying patient medical files to make it appear that he had actually performed the procedures, versus simply cutting toenails and performing other routine procedures. He now faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and restitution of $1.5 million.