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Welfare Thieves Get Early Morning Wake Up Call

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RAEFORD — People whom authorities say are abusing welfare benefits got a rude awakening Wednesday. Hoke County investigators went door to door in the early morning hours rounding up people suspected of welfare fraud.

Twenty-two people in Hoke County found Raeford police officers and sheriff's investigators at their doors during the wee hours. All are suspected of welfare fraud. After the wake up call, police hauled them off to jail.

The bust was the culmination of "Operation Round-up", and began at 3 a.m. Wednesday with a knock on the first suspect's door. That act was repeated 22 times, and officers say those arrested face serious charges.

"Some you can honestly understand," said fraud investigator Christine Basil. "It's still wrong, but you can understand why their mind maybe worked that way. And there are one or two individuals that, quite frankly, greed is the only explanation I have for it."

In all, those arrested Wednesday are accused of taking more than $52,000 in overpayments.

"It's taking away from the system that is designed to help children and designed to help the needy," said Hoke County Sheriff Wayne Byrd. "These people evidently do not fall into that category."

Other victims are the children of the suspects. They too were taken out of their homes in the middle of the night. If there were no relatives who could come get them, the children of those arrested were taken to a makeshift day care center at the police department.

"We do not want the children to see their parents arrested," said fraud investigator Heather Knott. "That's not the example that needs to be set for the children, but there's nothing that we can do about it. If it's illegal, it's illegal."

The Department of Social Services started "Operation Round-up" after taking calls from residents and referrals from caseworkers. They were hearing more and more about people abusing the system. Determining that welfare fraud was a growing concern in the area, DSS decided it was time to crack down. They say they hope, in addition to catching those already involved in such activity, the program will also get their message of intolerance out to others who are, or might be considering becoming, involved in fraud.

Officials say the sting was a success, but they do have concerns about a suspect who turned herself in Tuesday, before the sting began. Police say the suspect told them she was told by her cousin, Magistrate Sharon MacGregor, that there was a warrant for her arrest. DSS has now launched an investigation to determine if the magistrate might have misused her office and possibly put police officers' lives in danger by leaking that information.

MacGregor would not comment when contacted by WRAL's Melissa Buscher.

They hope the round-up will send the message that welfare and food stamp fraud will not be tolerated in Hoke County. Many of those arrested face numerous charges, in most cases lying about household income and withholding information about others in the home.

With social services programs on limited budgets, DSS believes crack-downs are necessary so that people who really need public assistance get it.