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SSA takes steps to protect disability benefits recipients

Some New York residents may recall a tragic situation that came to light in 2011. A total of five people allegedly schemed to hold four people hostage who received Social Security disability benefits for intellectual disabilities. The defendants stole the recipients benefits while keeping them locked in a basement. The defendants were able to convince these individuals to allow them to be their representative payees.

This case brought to light the troubling issues that can arise when the wrong person is allowed to become a representative payee. To prevent this from affecting anyone else, the Social Security Administration began piloting a program in 2012 that would bar certain people -- those with criminal backgrounds -- from becoming a representative payee, someone who collects benefits on behalf of a disabled individual.

After seeing promising results, the SSA recently announced that it will be expanding the program to encompass the entire country. Now, anyone who applies to be a representative payee will undergo a background check. If they have been convicted of certain crimes -- including human trafficking, rape, fraud to obtain government assistance or first-degree homicide, among others -- they will be flagged and denied status as a representative payee.

However, the SSA has stated that the program has room for improvement. Because the SSA is not a law enforcement agency, it is not allowed to access FBI criminal databases. This means that background checks may be incomplete in cases in which a person's record is not public or available through a third-party database.

Despite the improvement opportunities, this is a huge step forward for the Social Security disability program. Disability benefits are supposed to help those who live with debilitating conditions, and hopefully this change will ensure greater protection for these individuals.

Source: Disability Scoop, "Social Security Ups Disability Safeguards," Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker, March 5, 2014

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