Wednesday, February 21, 2018
News Roundup

Clearwater man baffled by agency's response to missing Social Security checks

A silver haired man with dark, serious eyes and deep frown lines spread three documents across his kitchen table.

He motioned to the signatures.

One, at the bottom of a Social Security form, spelled out "Wayne E. Dempsey" in flowing, curly letters. The "W" was shaped like a fish hook, the middle initial more resembled a "T."

The next signature appeared on the back of one of Dempsey's Social Security checks. The style was simple and the letters short. The first name looked like "Wayne," but the second appeared to be "Denpey." It had no middle initial. The third signature on another check was different still. Its letters were in jagged print.

"Somebody in first-year handwriting analysis would say these signatures are not the same," he said. "The signatures are obviously not mine and are clearly forged."

The Social Security Administration, it seems, disagrees.

• • •

Wayne E. Dempsey is 68. He began contributing to Social Security 51 years ago when he took a job as a short-order cook. He has since worked as a bio-medical researcher, a manager at a rubber manufacturing lab and a seller of equipment that measures plastic's thickness. In 2007, he retired from a two-decade career of selling boots at motorcycle rallies.

He started taking Social Security six years ago. He received checks each month, without incident, until last spring. When a check didn't arrive one month, he called and got a quick replacement.

He thought little of it until a letter arrived in August from the Social Security Administration.

It said he had cashed both the replacement check and an original — one of two he reported missing. He owed $679.

Dempsey was dumbfounded. He was out-of-state vacationing so his wife called federal officials and filed an appeal on his behalf.

In October, he met with a Social Security representative at the Clearwater office. It was there, Dempsey said, that he first saw the two originals he never received. He had been accused of cashing both.

He filled out forms to report a fraud. He also supplied copies of his signature on past checks. He was told the U.S. Department of the Treasury would investigate.

Dempsey heard nothing until another letter arrived in late December.

"We have determined that you received $1,358.00 more in Social Security benefits than you were due," it read. "We have your signatures on all the checks in question."

If Dempsey didn't repay the money within 30 days, the letter said his upcoming checks would be withheld.

Dempsey called the administration's national office. He said a woman reviewed his account and told him the decision was final. She also refused to tell him who could explain how the investigation was done.

"She gave me no options at all," he said. "Bottom line: I owe them money."

Frustrated, he called the office of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. They contacted officials at Social Security who, within days, called Dempsey.

It was all a big mistake, a representative explained earlier this month. Investigators were still reviewing the case. He was not told, however, that he had been found guiltless.

Citing privacy laws, a Social Security spokeswoman wouldn't address Dempsey's case. That agency likely won't handle it anyway; the Treasury investigates forgeries.

Treasury officials also declined to discuss Dempsey's case.

If the department's hand-writing experts determine a forgery happened, officials typically require the banks that cashed the check to repay the money.

In fiscal year 2011, about 440,000 Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks were reported lost or stolen, according to Treasury officials. Those figures are dwindling, however, as more people shift to electronic payments, which are 125 times less likely to go missing.

Just 4 percent of Floridians on Social Security still receive paper checks. In a state with so many senior citizens, that number is still a big one: 196,000.

• • •

Dempsey has never been charged with stealing anything. He and his wife have lived in the same house for two decades, its mortgage long paid. They also own a van, a car, a condo in Colorado and a moody 10-year-old cat named Soji. During much of this ordeal, the couple was vacationing in Europe.

Dempsey's prime defense: "I don't have any incentive to do anything illegal."

Another key defense, he said, was stamped on one of the forged checks. It was deposited in a Bank of America account that belonged to Snacks Food Store, a grocery mart with metal window bars and a smashed glass door in a dilapidated Tampa neighborhood far from Dempsey's Clearwater home.

He swears he's never been there.

The store's owner, Georges Gerges, didn't look surprised when a reporter showed him a copy of the check late last week. He had been expecting someone.

According to Gerges, this is what happened:

He and a friend, Meras Abu-Safieh, opened the store on N 34th Street early last year. Abu-Safieh wanted to cash checks. Gerges didn't.

So, Gerges said, his partner got the store a license, fronted the money and cashed checks. The store took either a 2.5 or 3.5 percent commission on each one.

Gerges insists he didn't cash a single check. He did, however, deposit them into the store's business account at Bank of America.

He didn't suspect a problem until one day in August when he couldn't access that account. Bank officials told him they were investigating illegal activity and had frozen his funds.

He confronted Abu-Safieh at the store the next day.

"I'll be right back," Gerges recalled him saying.

Abu-Safieh, he said, never returned. Gerges suspects he fled the state, possibly the country. Abu-Safieh could not be reached for comment.

Gerges, who has never been contacted by law enforcement about the check, said he thinks his old partner either didn't ask people for identification before cashing checks or possibly was involved in the fraud.

Bank officials, he said, have never updated him. The account contained $60,000, about $12,000 of which was his. He said he's been too busy working 12-hour days to request an update on the case.

Both men had previously been fined for selling alcohol to people under the age of 21. Gerges was also fined once for selling single or loose cigarettes.

But Gerges calls himself a "good ol' Catholic" and said he's always been trustworthy. He knows most customers by name and often lets people buy on credit.

"You build your reputation all your life and you get taken down by a scam," he said. "I don't trust my shadow anymore."

Last week, for the first time, Dempsey called the police about the forged checks.

Times researcher Natalie A. Watson and staff writer Stephanie Bolling contributed to this report. Reach John Woodrow Cox at [email protected]

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