Forgetful Widow

social security card and money concept

Many widowed individuals struggle financially when a spouse dies. Most cope by selling assets, working a second job, or maybe renting a room out in their homes. Fraudulently claiming a late spouse’s Social Security benefits is not a good financial choice. But that was the tactic that Sonya Bannister Burford of Upper Marlboro, Md., chose, stealing more than $300,000 in Social Security benefits.

When Burford’s husband died in August 1996, she failed to report the death to the Social Security Administration (SSA). (It just slipped my mind—for twenty-three years.) SSA continued to issue Disability Insurance Benefits, depositing them in a joint account in Burford’s and her late husband’s name. These benefits are intended to provide support for qualified individuals, who demonstrate financial need. (Not just because it’s convenient to get one’s hands on extra income.)

Burford accessed the funds through cash withdrawals, retail purchases, buying gift cards, and writing checks to herself. (At least she doesn’t appear to have been shopping at Tiffany’s and buying luxury cars, which seem to be favored by some fraudsters.) She pleaded guilty in May 2021, to a federal charge of theft of government property. Under the plea agreement, she must forfeit and pay restitution for the full amount of the fraud, which was $322,938. When sentenced in August, she could face up to 10 years in federal prison.

Today’s Fraud of the Day comes from a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, “Upper Marlboro Woman Pleads Guilty to Stealing Nearly $323,000 in Social Security Benefits to Which She Was Not Entitled,” published May 6, 2021.

Greenbelt, Maryland – Sonya Bannister Burford, age 53, of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, pleaded guilty on May 5, 2021, to the federal charge of theft of government property, for stealing $322,938 in Social Security benefits to which she was not entitled.

The guilty plea was announced by Acting United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Jonathan F. Lenzner; Special Agent in Charge Michael McGill of the Social Security Administration (SSA) – Office of Inspector General (OIG), Philadelphia Field Division; and Special Agent in Charge Rico Medina of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – OIG.


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Larry Benson, Senior Director of Strategic Alliances, LexisNexis Risk Solutions - Government

Larry Benson is responsible for developing strategic partnerships and solutions for the government vertical. His expertise focuses on how government programs are defrauded by criminal groups, and the approaches necessary to prevent them from succeeding.

Mr. Benson has 30 years of experience in sales and business development. Before joining LexisNexis® Risk Solutions, he spent 12 years founding and managing two software technology startups. During the 1990s he spent 10 years as a Regional Director helping to grow a New England-based technology company from 300 employees to 7,000. He started his career with Martin Marietta Aerospace working on laser guided weapons and day/night vision systems.

A sought-after speaker and accomplished writer, Mr. Benson is the principal author of “Fraud of the Day,” a website dedicated to educating government officials about how criminals are defrauding government programs. He has co-authored WTF? Where’s the Fraud? How to Unmask and Stop Identity Fraud’s Drain on Our Government, and Data Personified, How Fraud is Changing the Meaning of Identity.

Benson holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Albright College, and earned two graduate degrees – a Master of Business Administration from Florida Institute of Technology, and a Master of Science in Engineering from Lehigh University.