Metro-Detroit Is A Mecca For Scammers Who Want To Live Off Dead Relatives’ Government Benefits
Scammers who live off the government benefits of dead relatives cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Last year alone, Social Security Administration inspector general audits found that the Social Security Administration paid out more than $40 million to 500 dead people in Michigan alone.
Over the last five years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit says it has prosecuted more scammers living off dead relative’s government benefits than anywhere else in the United States. The USAO in Detroit charged 40 people with illegally collecting dead relative’s government benefits. They are also investigating another 125 cases that were flagged in a 2018 audit. Prosecutors say scammers in Detroit now account for almost half of all Social Security fraud in the country.
Of the 41 defendants charged in metro Detroit since 2014, 31 have been convicted and sentenced; six are awaiting sentencing; four cases are still pending. Prosecutors in Detroit have obtained $4.4 million in restitution orders and another half a million dollars in restitution to other victims.
However, according to prosecutors, not everyone is going to prison for this crime. Of the 31 closed cases, only seven defendants got prison sentences with the longest one being three years.
United States Attorney Matthew Schneider told the Detroit Free Press that he believes the age of the defendants is a key factor:
By the time they’re caught, they’re in their 60s or 70s. The judges have a hard time sending older people to prison,” said Schneider, who believes people who steal dead people’s benefits belong behind bars.
Scammers Who Want To Live Off Dead Relatives’ Government Benefits Are Just Average Joes
The defendants include people like Frank Johnson of St. Clair pretended to be his dead mother in phone conversations with investigators. He would raise the pitch of his voice to sound more convincing so that he could continue collecting her Social Security checks. Johnson pleaded guilty in April to stealing $174,609 in Social Security benefits. The court will be sentencing Johnson on October 22nd. He faces 12-18 months.
Linda Wardlow Tried To Hide Her Son’s Death For 25 Years
Linda Wardlow of Ferndale allegedly hid her son’s death from the government for 24 years. She pretended at one point that her child was in Ecuador having surgery. She also claimed that he had died there.
Wardlow was brazen enough to ask the Social Security Administration for money to bring his body back to the United States. However, he had been dead for decades. Wardlow pleaded guilty in August to stealing $292,000 in benefits meant for her late son. The court will be sentencing Wardlow in January. She faces 3-4 years in prison.
Otis Wilder of Detroit man took on his dead mom’s identity for 25 years. His name was Otis; hers was Iotis. The name similarities allowed him to sign her name on debit card slips and collect her benefits. Wilder collected $260,000 in illegal benefits. He also used her debit card to make ATM purchases and shop at retailers. The court sentenced the 80-year old Otis Wilder to one year in prison.
Kendrick Gills Thought He Hit The Jackpot
Take the case of Kendrick Gills. Gills lived off a dead man for 14 years. He stole more than $500,000 in government benefits from a deceased relative. He tricked the government into thinking the man was alive and living with him.
However, Gills broke down in tears when the feds came knocking. Gillis claimed the relative was like a “father figure” to him, then came up with a wild cover story. He found his 90-year-old relative dead in the house. But his body disappeared that same day either left in a ditch by a cousin or buried in a well behind a farmhouse.
The stories didn’t check out. Charges followed. To this day, a body has not been found.
Gills is among a growing number of targets who have come under the government’s radar in recent years for what prosecutors describe as a pervasive and costly crime: the theft of dead people’s benefits.
How The Government Tracks Down Scammers Stealing Dead Relatives’ Government Benefits
That’s how federal agents busted Kendrick Gills.
Gills’ relative Jacques Farmer retired in 1971 and qualified for government annuity because of his federal service. The SSA electronically transferred $3,000 a month into a bank account in Farmer’s name from 1999-2017.
The government launched an investigation in August 2018. They suspected the possible theft of Farmer’s annuity funds. Red flags went up after his name turned up on a list of retirees over the age of 90 who had no health care claims filed in 10 years.
The Office of Inspector General would eventually learn that Farmer died sometime in mid-2005 and Gills had been signing beneficiary forms and address verification forms for Farmer for years,
Gills was indicted in May on multiple charges. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 27 to mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. He faces 51-57 months in prison when he is sentenced in December.
Detroit Scammer Holds Record
Most people look like amateurs compared to Detroiter Walter Terrell, Sr. Terrell is a retired social worker for the Detroit Board of Education. He hid his mother’s death in 1981. Terrell collected $285,000 of her Social Security benefits for over 37 years.
Prosecutors said the 76-year-old man forged his mother’s signature on about 375 checks. He claimed she was on vacation when investigators called, arranged for someone to impersonate her during another phone call with the agency, then claimed that she was visiting family out of state.
In November, Terrell pleaded guilty to stealing government funds. Under the terms of his plea deal, he faced 18-24 months in prison.
However, Terrell’s lawyer argued that it’s the government’s fault:
What is most troubling, aside from (Terrell’s) conduct, is that the SSA did not investigate the matter until Oct. 7, 2014, 33 years following the death of (his) mother. The SSA missed the fact that (Terrell’s) mother had passed away in 1981 and continued to issue the checks.
Terrell got a break. In March, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh sentenced Terrell to six months in prison.