Lost in translation: Interpreter business rife with fraud


Another day, another scam defrauding insurers and governments.  For purposes of full disclosure, the case I'm highlighting today comes from Washington's Labor and Industries (L&I), the agency where I formerly worked and headed up fraud prevention efforts, and the investigation dates back to my time there.  During my time there, I saw so much fraud and abuse from interpreter agencies that I once said I would give a reward for anyone that could find an honest one.  That's hyperbole, but it reflects the exposure that workers' compensation insurers, Medicaid and Medicare face from providers, particularly those with lower credentials and huge risk for fraud.

The latest case from L&I comes in at $600,000 in value.  The owners of Hispanic Voices, the firm providing services (sometimes) and billing (all the time!), used a mix of schemes.  They ranged from phantom billing for services never rendered, billing two or three times as long as real services took, and billing for services provided by non-certified interpreters (aka grab your cousin and start interpreting).

Other cases I've seen showed all sorts of bad behavior.  Billing for providing interpretation services from the same interpreter in multiple locations at the same moment (very impressive!).  Charges for significant travel time to provide the service which never occurred.  Some of the more interesting schemes involved recruitment of non-English speaking workers in smaller communities to file false workers' compensation claims, with the same primary care providers and interpreters billing and everyone splitting the ill gotten gains.

Okay, enough bashing of interpreters.  There are plenty of other high risk provider categories and treatments out there - durable medical equipment, physical therapy, chiropractors, spinal cord stimulators and the like.  While lower in some specialties, known fraud cases range the gamut of virtually every type of procedure and provider type.  So, what to do about it?

Beyond increasing requirements for licensing, background checks and the like, the real opportunity is to ensure that data sets are analyzed appropriately.  Bouncing billing time for services rendered by the interpreters off the the addresses of the patient and doctor, as well as the services provided by the doctor, begins to show a range of what may be likely on an individual billing.  Going further to analyze the number of licensed interpreters versus billing hours, which can regularly show more than 24 hours worked in a day helps as well.  Good analysis of patient populations, need and risk continue to expand analysis.  For government agencies, matching against other data sets - like revenue/tax base, ownership and employee reporting quickly begin to show the gaps that reflect the fraud.

These approaches work regardless of the type of provider.  However, beginning with the areas of biggest risk can help significantly.  One state, working with SAS, began to segment Medicaid billings, and started with high risk areas.  As an example, non-emergency medical transportation was a significant cost.  When properly analyzed for risk, outliers and with predictive models based on past cases utilized, they were able to save tens of millions of dollars annually.  From just one type of service!

The best approach is to use multiple data sets, multiple approaches and ensure that fraud detection is continuous monitoring, not just ad hoc runs.  The latter produce successes, but fail to guard against future risks, serving more like fraud Whack-a-Mole than a true plan.


About Author

Carl Hammersburg

Manager, Government and Healthcare Risk and Fraud

Carl Hammersburg manages the SAS Government and Healthcare Risk and Fraud team, and has been with SAS since 2012. Prior to that, he spent 20 years in anti-fraud activities for Washington State’s exclusive workers’ comp insurer, the Department of Labor and Industries. In 2004, Carl formed that agency’s comprehensive fraud program, covering tax and premium audit, claim investigation, provider fraud and collections. Data sharing and investigative partnerships with other State and Federal agencies, as well as driving public availability of information and awareness served as cornerstones to the anti-fraud activities of the program. During his stewardship, audit and investigative activities doubled and outcomes tripled, based on a focus on data mining and predictive analytics that improved efficiency and case selection. Program success under Carl’s leadership resulted in awards from two successive Governors of Washington State.


  1. Hi Carl, Thanks for this post. As someone who has been working in the translation industry for years, I can honestly say that this kind of ethical turpitude is not typical in our industry. The majority of translation and interpretation services are ordered by the private sector, where such scams are quite rare. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the public sector: when it comes to taxpayer dollars, it's "easy come easy go."

  2. Hey Carl, cheers for the important topic you brought to discussion. Unfortunately, we see such contract theft more in Arabic countries, many times such scams run on high scales with collaboration with some corrupted governmental officials, like any other sector, the point that I want to make here is that many big companies profit from such corrupted regimes raising their profits and making it impossible for other fair players to compete. You can check a big scale fraud of such a translation company in former Gadaffi's Lybian regime.

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