SANTA FE (KRQE) — The state receives $4 billion in taxpayer dollars to help needy New Mexicans, and with all that money, investigators said fraud in the system is a sad, unfortunate reality.
About a quarter of people in New Mexico--that's 550,000 men, women and children--are in need of some sort of state assistance, according Human Services Department spokesman Matt Kennicott.
"We do things like Medicaid, child support enforcement, behavioral health," said Kennicott.
HSD also distributes money for help with heating and cooling bills and food through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
"There is a lot of money floating around out there, and unfortunately people try to take advantage of the system," said Kennicott.
Kennicott points to several examples, such as one woman, who qualified for Social Security benefits because she lied about how needy she was. Investigators said she was living in a nice Rio Rancho home and married to a man who worked as a manager at a car dealership.
The state was able to prosecute her, and she now owes $169,000, according to Kennicott.
Just last month, the state
charged former HSD employee David Monta o , who is accused of cutting himself LIHEAP benefit checks and bilking taxpayers out of $4,000. He is charged with felony fraud and embezzlement charges.
Last year KRQE News 13 found one woman on Craigslist who was selling her EBT card, which work like a debit card and is replenished with taxpayer money each month to help families buy groceries. The author of the ad told News 13 she was selling the benefits for a friend who needed help paying bills.
"Maybe they'll get a $100 loaded onto their card, and they'll sell it for $50 for quick cash," said Kennicott.
In the last year alone, HSD looked into 2,300 tips about fraud. Only 10 percent of those were closed or prosecuted, according to Kennicott. HSD has five full-time investigators who follow up on tips.
"We are very aggressive though in trying to seek out these people," said Kennicott. "Every dollar that gets defrauded, every dollar that someone is lying and cheating to get takes away from the people that deserve it the most."
Kennicott said a lot of the tips received involve allegations of drug problems. Several lawmakers told News 13 Wednesday that they would support drug testing or background checking for people getting benefits.
But even if lawmakers signed off on that, HSD said it doesn't have the resources to carry it out right now.
People convicted of defrauding the system aren't necessarily cut off from benefits forever. Kennicott said they get three strikes before they are banned for good from receiving state help.
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New Mexico is located in the southwestern region of the U.S. Inhabited by Native American populations for many centuries, New Mexico has also been part of Imperial Spain, part of Mexico, and a U.S. territory.