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5 Scams That Are Easier (and Way More Common) Than Faking a Disability to Get Benefits

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“Disabled people have it so easy. They live off our tax dollars, buying Xboxes while the rest of us have to work and pay for their lifestyle. Most of them are faking and don’t deserve it.” — too many people on Facebook

If I could only bust one widespread myth about life with a disability, it would be this one. For some reason, the general public believes that receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) (and similar benefits in other countries) is a ticket to the high life. They imagine hordes of scammers rolling in dough every month — people who are completely healthy, or just have mild health conditions and could work but don’t want to. But this could not be further from the truth.

In reality, less than one percent of SSDI claims are estimated to be fraudulent, a vanishingly small number. Qualifying for federal and/or state disability programs in the United States is a grueling process that takes years, unless you have a terminal illness or one of a very few conditions that qualify for “presumptive eligibility.” Most applicants are initially rejected, which means they must appeal, submit volumes of medical documentation, see multiple doctors, and sometimes even appear before a judge in the hope of being approved.

And all this for what? According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, fewer than four out of 10 SSDI applications are ultimately approved, and 90% of beneficiaries receive less than $2,000 per month. The average SSDI payment as of 2022 is $1,358 per month. People who have never worked or don’t have enough work credits get SSI instead — a whopping $841 per month. Could you live, let alone live well, on $841 per month, or even $1,358 per month? No one is getting rich because they receive disability benefits.

Of course, some people occasionally fake a disability for personal gain. They might do something like use Grandma’s parking placard at the grocery store or rent a wheelchair to skip the lines at Disney World. But those are low-stakes, low-risk, and low-effort endeavors, not a years-long dedication to fooling doctors and employees of a massive government agency. Such instances do occur — the Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard case, for example — but they are incredibly rare. What is far more common is people desperately needing disability funding and services and having to fight for years just to get a meager monthly payment and spend their lives in poverty.

The persistent myth of scammers in disability programs must be addressed because it hurts disabled people who struggle to get the support they need. Most people respond by citing facts and statistics like I just did to show how hard it is to get benefits and how lousy they actually are if you do get them. But I think it’s time to try a new tactic. By talking about the scams we encounter every day, we can demonstrate why faking a disability to get Social Security simply isn’t worthwhile to the vast majority of criminals. Here are five common scams that are easier and far more lucrative than pretending to have a disability.

1. The Nigerian Prince scam.

We’ve all gotten one if not dozens of these emails. There are five in my spam folder right now. A Nigerian prince, a banker from Ghana, or a director of a charity for orphans has millions of dollars they can’t access — but you can help. These are known as “advance fee” scams, because the scammer convinces you to pay a fee with the promise of a much higher return, then takes your money and disappears.

Have you ever wondered why these emails are so poorly written? You would think that con artists would try harder to make their story seem believable, or at least run spell check. Who would fall for such an obvious scam? Some research shows that fraudsters make their messages seem shady on purpose. They don’t want to waste their time on people who might fall for the initial email but spot the scam before sending the money. They want the most gullible marks they can find, so creating a scam that’s obviously a scam to almost everyone leaves them only with those to whom it’s not obvious. And sadly, that group is mostly elderly folks and people with intellectual disabilities. Take note of that, because you’ll see it again.

2. Pretending to play an instrument.

A couple of weeks ago, I was taking my dog to the veterinarian when I saw a young man playing the violin for tips in the parking lot. Even though the university in my town has one of the top music programs in the country, and we have street performers here, something felt off about it. Later that day, I found out via social media that it was a scam.

These individuals are not actually playing an instrument; they are pretending to play to recorded music. They are not homeless or down on their luck, either. Most are part of organized traveling groups that engage in scams for profit, often using their kids to drum up sympathy. What’s genius about this scam is that aside from minor trespassing or panhandling violations, it’s not illegal. If someone wants to toss a few dollars to someone they believe is a struggling but extremely talented musician, that’s their choice. Unlike scamming Social Security, which is punishable by massive fines and prison time if you even manage to pull it off, pretending to play an instrument is easy, brings in tax-free cash, and at worst you’ll get a ticket or spend a night in jail.

Every time I’ve told someone about this scam since I witnessed it, they readily believe that the violin playing is fake, but struggle to accept that the “player” isn’t genuinely in need of help. I wish more people would extend the same benefit of the doubt to folks who need disability benefits.

3. Running a rigged carnival game.

If you’ve ever tried to impress a date at the county fair by winning a stuffed animal for them, you’ve discovered that carnival games are a lot harder to win than they look. From visual tricks to exploiting basic principles of physics, these games are carefully designed to guarantee that the operator will always earn a profit. In the video below, engineer Mark Rober explains how carnival scams work and tests some at a local boardwalk.

Rober and his colleagues collected data showing that the carnival they were studying grosses about $20,000 per day from games. That means they bring in almost $4,000 more in one day than an average SSDI recipient makes in a full year, and twice what SSI recipients make in a year. And once again, this scam is legal. In fact, most of us have been conned at a fair or amusement park and had fun in the process, even knowing the odds are stacked against us.

Back in the day, one of the only ways to support yourself if you had a disability was to join the circus. Apparently, it’s still a better-paying option than government benefits — and both easier and more profitable than faking a disability.

4. “Catfish” romance scams.

Catfishing is a slang term for pretending to be someone you’re not online, particularly on dating websites. Some people just catfish as a prank, but far too many do it to steal from lonely, vulnerable people who are looking for love. This twisted scam often ensnares seniors and people with disabilities who have retirement funds or legal settlements the scammer can loot. But even those who don’t have much money may be victimized, as professional catfishers can have several marks “on the hook” at the same time. Some online romance scammers also live in countries where $50 or $100 is more than most people earn in a month.

One of my personal care assistants previously worked for a disabled woman who had fallen for one of these scams. She had met her “boyfriend,” who claimed to be a military doctor, online, and would send him money. No matter how many times the woman’s grown children tried to explain that he wasn’t who he said he was, she refused to believe it. The emotional manipulation inherent in romance scams makes them especially cruel and damaging to victims when they finally recognize and accept the truth. You can learn more about romance scams and how to protect yourself on the FTC website.

5. Scamming or exploiting a disabled person to steal their Social Security benefits.

Scamming to get Social Security benefits is rare, but defrauding people who receive Social Security is disturbingly common. The Social Security website even has a page about how to protect yourself from scams. If you or a loved one receives disability or retirement payments, please read it.

People who manage to get on SSDI or SSI often live in fear of losing their benefits because of a paperwork error, because they earned or received too much money from another source, or because someone falsely accused them of fraud. Scammers know this and use it to their advantage. Identity thieves will call and accuse recipients of fraud or even threaten them with arrest, frightening them so they are not thinking clearly. Then they’ll offer to look into the issue and ask to “confirm” the person’s Social Security number and other personal information.

Unfortunately, such scams are far from the worst-case scenario when it comes to stealing disability benefits. In 2011, four adults with mental disabilities were found chained in a Philadelphia basement, imprisoned by their supposed caregivers who were living off their SSI payments. And then there was boarding house owner Dorothea Puente, who appeared to be a harmless grandmother but was actually a calculating serial killer. She took in men with mental illnesses and disabilities, murdered them, buried their bodies on her property, and kept collecting their Social Security checks. You can also learn more about her in the recent Netflix series “Worst Roommate Ever.”

As these scams demonstrate, con artists are after one thing: an easy mark. The Social Security Administration is about as far from an easy mark as it gets. But sadly, people with disabilities are frequently victims of fraud — and the scams I listed above are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to criminals targeting our community. So let’s stop accusing people who depend on SSI and SSDI of faking and start going after the real scammers.

Getty image by Max Zolotukhin.

Originally published: May 6, 2022
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