The Toronto Star
Saturday, June 5, 1997

Fingerprinting backed

Metro okays plan to fight welfare fraud

by Gail Swainson

Metro Council has approved a controversial plan to ask welfare recipients to voluntarily submit to electronic fingerprinting as a way to combat cheats.

``We want to put a stop to fraud so we can put money where it really has to go'', Metro Councillor Dennis Fotinos told council yesterday during a four-hour debate on the controversial electronic finger scanning.

But opponents heaped scorn on the plan, saying that because the pilot program will not be mandatory, lawbreakers can simply decide to opt out.

``We are presuming that the folks who are committing fraud will not volunteer to be found out'', Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall said.

The scheme would require that the finger codes of Metro welfare recipients be stored in a computer to weed out duplicate claims.

Proponents point to a Metro survey of welfare recipients that claimed about 60 per cent of recipients said they would support the scheme.

Human services committee chairperson Gordon Chong said the pilot program, which is scheduled to begin in the spring of 1988, will get rid of those who are illegally receiving benefits, and in the process, remove the cloud of fraud that he said hangs over all welfare recipients.

Social Services Minister Janet Ecker said ``anything that will help us do a better job on fraud and misuse, I want to explore.''

Opponents insist the savings figures are grossly inflated. They say the system is intrusive and treats all those on welfare like criminals, including the 97 per cent who are not committing fraud.

Worse, electronic finger printing will do little to root out those recipients who hide illegal earnings, which represents, by far, the greatest amount of fraud in the system, they say.

Metro Councillor David Miller called the program ``just like Big Brother. It's wrong and offensive'', and he called the estimated savings ``ludicrous and unproven''.

Fraud is estimated to be about 3 per cent, but some American jurisdictions have discovered rates as high as 12 per cent after implementing the finger scanning technology, staff said.

Welfare recipients who volunteer to be scanned will get a bank card encrypted with their secret code so that they can access their accounts from any bank machine.

This would end the need for cheque-cashing and expensive cheque-cashing services that exploit the poor. It would also eliminate problems over lost or late cheques, said a staff report.

The system, designed by a consortium lead by Citibank, will cost Metro about $3.32 million a year to operate and would pay for itself in just over two years, according to the report.

Earlier about 40 anti-scanning activists disrupted the council meeting with chanting and demands.

Copyright © 1997 by The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.