WASHINGTON -- The number of convictions for Social Security check fraud -- including grisly crimes such as the slaying of infirm family members to collect their checks -- has grown rapidly in recent months, according to a report by a government oversight agency.
While Social Security fraud is as old as the institution itself, "it seems like there are more ghoulish cases recently," said an investigator with the Health and Human Services Department's office of inspector general.
The office is charged with combating "waste, fraud and abuse" within the department. Most of the department's fraud cases involve Social Security benefits.
In fiscal 1990, the inspector general's office helped convict 90 cases in which the Social Security benefits of deceased people were obtained illegally, according to a report obtained by States News Service. In fiscal 1991, that figure climbed to 144. And in the first half of fiscal 1992, there have been 143 convictions in such cases, the report said.
Twenty-six of the convictions, including at least seven in Baltimore, were obtained in the Philadelphia regional office. Figures are still being compiled on how many persons actually killed beneficiaries to steal their checks and how many merely concealed a Social Security recipient's death, according to an office investigator. But both are on the increase, she said.
Those convicted have ranged from a Nebraska lawyer who concealed the death of a client and deposited her checks, to a former policeman from New Jersey who murdered his wife and mother and cashed their checks until the scam was discovered one year later.
Other cases have included:
* Tyrone and Dwight Walker of Baltimore cashed Social Security checks issued to their father for nine months after his death in March 1990. Dwight Walker pleaded guilty and was given a nine-month suspended sentence. Tyrone Walker failed to appear court and a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
* The brother of a blind and retarded disability beneficiary and his girlfriend killed the beneficiary, who was in her mid-20s, and buried her in the basement of the South Philadelphia house that the three of them shared. The couple also are believed to have killed an elderly man, hidden his body and cashed his Social Security checks.
* A Massachusetts man told investigators that a 111-year-old claimant, whose checks he was collecting, was visiting relatives in Ukraine. The investigators discovered that the claimant had died in 1949, and the man had collected $54,000 on his behalf.
* The remains of an Indiana woman were found padlocked in her mobile home three years after she had died. The woman's daughter, who lived next door, apparently failed to report her mother's death to continue collecting the Social Security checks.
The inspector general's office conducts computer matches with state vital statistics agencies to help keep track of the approximately 1.7 million Social Security beneficiaries who die each year. But more and more deaths appear to be going unreported, a phenomenon that officials attribute, in part, to financial hardships accompanying the ailing economy.
"Because the economy is so bad, people may be taking the opportunity to conceal a death and cash in checks that don't belong to them," the investigator said.
Many of the people convicted of stealing checks are first-time offenders who receive combination sentences of community service, fines and compensation to the Social Security Administration.