The Ionian Sea island of Zakynthos, famous for its gorgeous beaches and sparkling waters, is also home to an unabashed and shameless scam which occurred over several years, eventually costing the Greek government several millions of dollars a year. The discovery shows the extent to which the actions of Greek citizens have impacted the finances of the beleaguered mediterranean country.
This notorious and expensive scam involved as many as 700 or 1.8% of the island’s 39,000 residents claiming disability on the basis of blindness. This implausibly high number of blindness claims is around nine times the prevalence of blindness in other European countries according to a 2004 study published by the World Health Organization. These conniving Greek citizens falsely claimed that they were blind and were rewarded with more than $480 monthly in compensation. Among those who applied for the blindness benefit were a taxi driver and a bird hunter. The scam finally shut down in 2011 after one “blind” beneficiary was caught driving his Porsche.
Greece is obviously under pressure from creditors to step up its efforts to fight corruption and cut costs. In recent years, Greece required disability claimants to register in a centralized database by appearing in person or sending a representative. The 2012 registration resulted in 36,000 fewer disability claims than in 2011 according to Greece’s health ministry.
The healthy ministry attributes the reduction to fraudulent claims such as multiple claims for the same disability or accepting payments in the name of dead beneficiaries. The ministry also alleges that doctors accepted money for false diagnoses and local politicians signed off on false disability benefits to win support. On the Island of the Blind, a leading local politician, Dionysios Gasparos, and an opthamologist, Nikolaos Varzelis, are alleged to be the ringleaders. Additionally, some of the medical documents turned in by the “blind” in order to obtain their benefits were signed by a urologist.
This scam seems to embody the attitude of some Greek citizens which includes the mentality that rules are made to be broken. One resident of Zakynthos stated that the scam was a common secret where some people tried to earn money too easily, but that such scams were prevalent among Greece. Guesses estimate that as much as $22 billion is lost by the Greek government through tax evasion and tax avoidance each year. Studies show that Greeks are grossly underreporting their incomes, and statistics illustrate that accountants are found to be the leading offenders.
Another example of undeserved entitlements is that, until a few years ago, approximately 40,000 unmarried daughters of deceased public service workers received from the Greek government about $606 million annually. The current rule is that these daughters can no longer receive a share of their deceased father’s pensions after they turn 18, a rule under consideration by Greece’s Court of Audit as to whether it discriminates based on gender.
Those fraudulently claiming blind status in Zakynthos did not do any jail time for their misdeeds. Instead, those who were caught were ordered to repay their falsely claimed benefits in installments. They are still doing so today.