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LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office is playing hardball with individuals and store owners who try to cheat the public assistance system.

And it’s paying off, with Niagara County taxpayers saving more than $500,000 in overpayments in 2013. The department added a second welfare fraud investigator in 2013, which has easily paid for itself, and says adding a third would do the same.

In May 2013 – after a four-month joint undercover investigation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, the Sheriff’s Office, Niagara County Social Services, the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office and the Niagara Falls Police Department – two stores were red- flagged for having unusually high numbers of electronic benefit card use for their size. These cards are supposed to be used for food purchases.

Store owners involved in these types of fraud may illegally pay cash for cards – sometimes at 50 cents on the dollar – or allow people to use the cards to buy things that are not approved, such as cigarettes or beer.

Jasbir Kaur and Shamsher Singh, the co-owners of the Indian General Store at 1611 Pine Ave., Niagara Falls, and Wael Rizek, the owner of the Merry Mart at 336 19th St., Niagara Falls, faced a number of charges for making fraudulent food stamp transactions.

As a result of the investigation, $180,000 was recovered, 38 people were sanctioned, and another 26 were arrested.

All three store owners have agreed or are expected to agree to felony plea deals in Niagara Falls City Court and make restitution, sheriff’s officials said.

In addition, another 51 people, unrelated to this case, were charged with welfare fraud in 2013.

“It’s not our intention to arrest everyone on welfare,” said Amanda Irons-Rindfleisch, county welfare fraud investigator, but she said ancillary crime is a factor when people start selling their electronic benefit cards for cash.

“It was supposed to be used for food. Why are you getting the cash? What do want that cash for?” she said of those accused of fraud in these cases. “Then that’s going to impact the whole neighborhood. I don’t think these stores are doing their neighborhoods any justice or favors by this.”

Irons-Rindfleisch and co-investigator Michael Licinio, point to a case file nearly a foot thick on the stores investigation alone.

However, the hard work is paying off.

The sheriff’s Welfare Fraud Unit investigations into overpayments of benefits in 2012 resulted in $393,000 in savings, a 327 percent increase from 2011; and investigations in 2013 led to another $605,000 in savings, 54 percent increase from 2012.

Irons-Rindfleisch said a number of people took themselves off benefits when word of the stores investigation hit the streets.

“They didn’t want to run the risk. Most of these people weren’t even part of the investigations of these store, but we had put the fear into them if they were selling their cards,” Irons-Rindfleisch said.

“There’s a lot more out there,” said Detective Capt. Kristen M. Neubauer, chief of the Niagara County Sheriff’s Criminal Investigations Bureau.

And sadly, New York State taxpayers are being victimized not only by their own residents, but also by people from outside of New York.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, who works with the Sheriff’s Office as the community, safety and security liaison, said people are being trained in southern states to get benefits and then are being bused to New York State.

“I spoke with the joint terrorism task force and they say that in refugee camps overseas there are pamphlets of how to come to New York and get benefits,” said Irons-Rindfleisch. But she said Social Services does have access to databases to make sure that people are not getting benefits in more than one state.

“One of the things that the legislatures are looking at – and it’s not just in Niagara County, it’s all of New York State – is welfare fraud by those non-residents,” Godfrey said.

“We know that is the issue. We know that our non-resident welfare fraud is probably the lion’s share of our taxpayers’ dollars and we have resolutions calling for our governor to require residency.”

Irons-Rindfleisch said investigators are using computer technology as much as they can, but people always find ways around it.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to police work and cooperation from people,” she said. “These databases were not set up to find the bad guys. It’s just a generic tool.”

Anyone who is aware of welfare fraud – which includes selling food stamp cards or using them for unauthorized purchases, as well as not reporting or under reporting income, or making false claims on applications – is asked to call the Niagara County Department of Social Services in Lockport at 439-7788. Tips can be anonymous.

“It’s a drain on our taxpayers and it’s the right thing to do,” Godfrey said.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com