Privacy in the United States seems to be a rapidly fading concept, so you may be concerned about the Social Security Administration’s powers to investigate you either while you are applying for disability, or after you are approved. Specifically, I have had clients ask me:
- will Social Security hire a private investigator to follow me around?
- can they access my bank account information to learn about deposits I receive or checks I write?
- can they read my tax returns?
- can they secretly log in to my email account and read my email?
- can they download my text messages?
- can they open my mail?
- can they look at my Facebook, Twitter and other social media profiles?
As a general rule, Social Security does not conduct any of this type of surveillance. Currently they simply do not have the budget or the personnel to investigate every disability filer.
However, disability fraud is a big concern for Social Security. Fraud is even more of a concern in Congress where several members of Congress use the relatively rare instances of fraud for the political purpose of making disability more difficult to win.
Politicians Use Disability Fraud for Their Own Purposes
Recently, for example, there was a highly publicized case in West Virginia where a lawyer, a disability judge and at least two doctors have been accused of conspiring to cheat the disability system and produce favorable decisions in cases with manufactured evidence.
There have also been cases where judges have been called out for approving an unusually high number of claims (see this video where Representative Trey Gowdy lights into one of these judges).
Statistically, outright fraud happens rarely but given the size of the disability program, fraud does cost taxpayers millions of dollars per year. Congress has therefore been pressuring Social Security to increase its review of approved claims and to increase prosecution of claimants who commit outright fraud.
In my experience, Social Security relies on the claim adjudication process to weed out undeserving claims. I have not seen any instances in the pre-approval process where disability applicants were surveilled or followed.
I do advise my disability clients to delete or set to private any social media accounts. Is it possible that a judge might type your name into Google or Facebook to see what comes up? Yes, it is possible. I generally plug my clients’s names into Google and Facebook and I have seen dozens of photos that could raise questions about whether a disability claimant is telling the truth. Usually, these photos were taken years earlier and would have no evidentiary value but why take the chance?
Surveillance After Approval
I do think that Social Security has been and will continue to step up its continuing disability review program. CDRs are designed to identify approved claimants who show medical improvement and thus may be subject to benefit termination but if a CDR uncovers evidence of actual fraud (i.e., a claimant who is working for under-the-table cash, or who is engaged in criminal activity), Social Security will refer that person to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation.
I would also tell you that I have represented a few clients over the years who found themselves facing a fraud investigation because of “poison pen” letters from angry ex-spouses, angry ex-friends, and even from nosy neighbors. Your status as a disability recipient is no one’s business and you should understand that there are people out there who assume that every disability claimant is scheming the system.
I think it is reasonable to assume that surveillance and truly invasive investigations are only going to occur in the context of a criminal prosecution. Again, however, I would not assume that Social Security personnel would not conduct a quick Google, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter search.
So, I continue to give my approved clients the same advice:
- continue going to the doctor for regular treatment
- if you start to feel like you can work, take advantage of SSA’s return to work programs (Trial Work period, Ticket to Work, etc.)
- try not to see yourself as permanently disabled. You will earn more money and feel more personally fulfilled if you can return to work
- recognize that photos and videos can create misleading assumptions
- limit your use of social media platforms
- do not feel any need to explain to anyone why you are on disability or what you do during your day
- if anyone from Social Security contacts you about your approved claim, refer that person to me (i.e., your lawyer)