TODAY | October 26, 2012
>>> on "today investigates," health care fraud. money stolen out of all of our pockets and the suspects who flaunt it. nbc's tom costello has been looking into this story. tom, good morning to you.
>> reporter: hi, savannah. not talking about small time storefront operations that can steal hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. we're talking about suspects who steal tens of millions of dollars, even hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, money that's meant to help the poor, retirees, even children with autism. in queens , new york , a pre- dawn raid . federal agents targeting six people accused of ripping off the government's health care system for nearly $12 million.
>> good job.
>> reporter: more agents from the hhs inspector general's office descend on a medical clinic owned by the suspects, searching room by room for fraudulent billing documents, hidden computer files and stolen medicare numbers.
>> this looks to be like adult day care .
>> reporter: investigators say the scheme involved luring senior citizens to the clinic by giving them free meals as well as music, computer and dance lessons all in exchange for their medicare numbers, numbers then allegedly billed for medical services that were never provided, charges the suspect deny. the victims too often are the elderly and disadvantaged.
>> they are often victims of identity theft. they are used as pawns in this -- in these schemes to perpetuate medicare fraud for profits.
>> reporter: virtually every day in this country federal agents arrest suspects for health care fraud. last year alone agents charged nearly 1,500 people, and the amount of stolen taxpayer dollars is staggering, as much as $60 billion a year. the investigative work can be dangerous, and agents are also relying heavily on data analysis to find suspects before they get away with the money. the health care fraud can take many different forms. take paul thorson, a danish scientist accused of stealing grant money awarded by the cdc for autism research and now wanted as a fugitive. investigators say thorson submitted these phony invoices for expenses, complete with forged cdc official signatures and then had more than $1 million wired into his own bank account . he allegedly used the cash to buy two cars, a $34,000 harley davidson , and this $450,000 home in atlanta.
>> it is a travesty.
>> reporter: this mother of an autistic child and director of an autism support group .
>> when you think of these luxury cars and harley-davidson, are you serious? there's parents out here that probably wish they could afford that stuff but they can't because they are paying for extra therapy for our kids.
>> this is one of our missions to prevent diseases and find out more about diseases, and for someone to take crucial dollars to fund his personal piggy bank to buy his toys with taxpayer dollars, it really upsets me.
>> reporter: thorson isn't the only fugitive want ed for taxpayer brothers to live a lavish lifestyle. meet the benitez brothers, accused of stealing $110 million from a medicare fund. they allegedly used this cash to buy this hotel, this helicopter, even their own water park .
>> we've certainly seen criminals who have billed the medicare program for millions of dollars, sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars over several years, and that money often goes straight into their pocket.
>> reporter: just flaunting ill-gotten gains, flaunting their wealth.
>> that's right.
>> reporter: feds are asking anyone who suspects health care fraud to call their tip line,
1-800-hhs-tips. last year alone, federal law enforcement alone managed to recover $4.5 billion in fines, penalties and restitutions so this is not pocket change . savannah?
>> what a story. tom costello in our washington newsroom, thank you.