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Greek 'island of the blind'? More like 'island of welfare cheats'

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The scandal of the fake blind people on Zakynthos is a sharp reminder of the immense challenges that will be faced by whoever takes the reins in national elections on May 6, vividly illustrating the kind of corruption that has helped push Greece to the brink of economic and social meltdown. 

Fraudulent social welfare claims cost Greece 111 million euros ($146 million) last year, according to government statistics. And just last week, Labor ministry officials said they had halted welfare or pension payments to 200,000 people – around 2 percent of Greece’s population – because they were discovered to be based on fraudulent claims.

A mayoral crusade

For their purported disability, the "blind" islanders received monthly payments of at least 350 euros ($462), sometimes much more depending on their age and family status. Those who supposedly needed caregivers received more money.

But with the newly elected mayor of the town of Zakynthos declaring an end to the payments – part of a tough crackdown on such abuses on the island – the defrauders' have been brought up short. 

Mayor Stelios Bozikis notified the authorities in Athens of the scam and an investigation has now been launched. All the ‘blind’ people on the island will have to submit to independent tests by ophthalmologists in the capital.

“I realized when I became mayor that a lot of illegal things were taking place here,” says Mr. Bozikis, a lawyer who was elected in January 2011. “We’ve estimated that these false claims cost Zakynthos at least 2 million euros a year.”

His crusade against benefit fraud and other scams on the island has earned him the anger of many of its inhabitants. The belief among Greeks that if something is up for grabs from the state, you should grab it, is well-entrenched. About 50 irate island residents stormed a council meeting in March and hurled eggs and yogurt at the mayor. He says he regards the attack as “a badge of honor” because it shows his campaign is hitting home.

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