Hand Images Help Detect Welfare Fraud

A California county has begun taking "hand images" of general assistance recipients in an effort to reduce the chances that a person will apply for more benefits under an assumed identity.

by / April 30, 1995
May 95

Level of govt.: County, state

Function: Human Services

Problem/situation: Counties are losing money because some people apply for welfare benefits under an assumed identity and collect double their share.

Solution: Technology that collects and records hand measurements to form a unique identifier for each recipient.

Jurisdiction: Sacramento County Department of Human Services, Los Angeles County, San Francisco County.

Vendors: Recognition Systems Inc., Microsoft.

Contact: Sacramento County Department of Human Assistance 916/978-2101.

By Brian Miller

Features Editor

A number of California counties are now using information technology to weed out welfare system abusers. While some counties, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, are checking recipient fingerprints with a system known by the acronym AFIRM, (Automated Fingerprint Image Reporting and Match) Sacramento County is using a system to check and record recipients' hand measurements.

Fingerprint systems and the hand image system both check an aid applicant's image against a database of persons already receiving aid. The systems record an applicant's unique features and check the images to see if the person is applying using a false name in an effort to get more public benefits.

Sacramento County's hand image devices are connected to PCs in a reception area, where some 12,000 current General Assistance recipients were imaged last winter to build the county's database. A General Assistance recipient places his outstretched hand inside a small, rectangular box with an open side and hand outline on the inside bottom. Images of the top and side of the hand are taken, and the measurements are run through a mathematical formula to calculate the relationship between the finger length, hand thickness and hand width to form a unique identifier.

The devices, called ID3DR and produced by Cambell, Calif.-based Recognition Systems Inc., are used mainly for security applications. Some airports, for example, have them for use with a frequent travellers' program to ease the trip through customs. Sacramento County's database runs on Microsoft's Access software, and it took a programmer about a month to develop an interface with the devices.


Sacramento chose the hand imagers instead of AFIRM mainly because it is less expensive. The county Board of Supervisors approved $1.2 million for a fingerprint program last spring, but the Department of Human Assistance elected to use the hand imagers, which cost about $50,000, including software.

A second reason for the choice was speed. "It takes much less memory to store a hand image than a fingerprint," said Anne DeStefano, chief of the department's information systems division. "So it takes much less time for a search."

The low cost helps reduce risk and, therefore, potentially reduces double dipping. The primary motivation for the system is to reduce the amount of money spent for General Assistance, a program entirely funded by the county. "We think we can show savings at little cost, and we can take it out if it doesn't work," said DeStefano. The devices could be used for other applications in the department, including security access, she said, if the program is taken offline.

And while using the system without a large investment, the county can watch the technology market and see what happens to the prices and effectiveness of various systems. "We don't want to get locked into technology that will be obsolete by the turn of the century," DeStefano said.

In the first few weeks that Sacramento began imaging General Assistance recipients, 60 people of about 1,700 imaged were referred to investigations as possible double dippers. Letters were sent to all aid recipients with a date for them to be scanned, but as many as one-third of them did not come to the appointment. These people could be cut from the welfare rolls.

While this will reduce the welfare outlay, which the county intended, it is unclear how many of the people who fail to show up or come up as a match on the system are actually double dippers. "We don't know how many," said DeStefano. "There is no way to tell how much duplicate aid is going on."

Another element making the payback of such systems difficult to determine is that there is some deterrence from double dipping, which is difficult to quantify in dollars saved because the number of people deterred would remain unknown.


Because Sacramento County is alone in using hand images, they are unable to check other counties for persons getting double benefits. This will become important as more counties begin to use technology for cracking down on double dippers, because the counties will need a common reference for image comparisons.

The state plans to deploy a matching system once testing and evaluation of Los Angeles County's fingerprint system is finished, said Sidonie Squire, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. She added that there is no set timetable for implementation.

If the system used by Sacramento meets the requirements being developed by the state, then the hand imagers may be used not only by Sacramento but other counties as well.