Food stamp fraud ring busted in Georgia
In what authorities describe as "one of the largest food stamp frauds" in history, police have arrested dozens of people and charged them with selling food stamps for cash at grocery stores around the state.
Federal charges have been filed against dozens of people in Georgia who allegedly set up a scheme that funneled $18 million worth of food stamps through grocery stores in what a Department of Justice official is calling “one of the largest federal food program frauds ever.”
Fifty-four people were indicted for their roles in the massive fraud which involved the illegal purchase of WIC and food stamp benefits.
The fraud “allegedly involved the purchase of more than $18 million in WIC vouchers and Food Stamp benefits for cash through a number of purported grocery stores set up throughout Georgia.”
Another 34 defendants were indicted for selling their benefits. Through the WIC program, participants receive 3-month supplies of vouchers which can be exchanged for food at authorized stores. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) provides food stamp benefits to low-income families.
It is illegal to sell WIC and SNAP benefits for cash, though that did not stop the 88 people involved in the scam.
“Many of the defendants allegedly canvassed low-income neighborhoods and solicited WIC and Food Stamp participants to illegally exchange their benefits not for food but for cash,” the DOJ’s charge reads.
After setting up grocery store operations throughout Georgia, the defendants bought the benefits for a fraction of their face value.
The defendants then allegedly laundered the $18 million they received from the scheme.
Another 34 defendants who were charged separately allegedly sold over $1,000 worth of WIC and food stamps for cash.
“This prosecution is one of the largest federal food program frauds ever brought,” said U.S. Attorney Edward J. Tarver in a statement.
The 54 defendants were charged with one count each of mail and wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy. The charges carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
This is a drop in the bucket. No one knows how much fraud and abuse there is in the SNAP program because there are endless ways to game the system.
The kind of fraud depcited here is relatively small - around $800 million nationwide every year, or 1% according to the Agriculture Department. The real scandal is in the number of people who game the sytsem to receive benefits to which they are not entitled. This is the meat and potatoes of the fraud perpetrated on the American taxpayer and some estimates of this kind of abuse reaches 20% of the $80 billion we spend every year on the program.
There are 40 inspectors working for the SNAP program to investigate 193,000 groceries and other outlets who accept the EBT card. It gets worse, compliance is almost entirely left up to the food stamp recipient.
In other words, suppose you are eligible to receive the maximum amount of benefits when you begin participation in the program. But a few months later you get a better job, or you inherit some money, or you get married - any number of things that improve your financial position that would reduce or eliminate your SNAP benefits.
How does the government find out about this change in your eligibility status? The SNAP "client" is supposed to inform them. Untold billions are bilked from the government in this fashion. Some people are genuinely unaware that their change in status needs to be reported. Others don't care and continue to receive the excess benefits.
There is a recertification process that usually happens yearly with the client having to fill out a form and an interview is conducted by a caseworker, usually over the phone. You can guess the number of ways to finesse this "recertification" process and still receive benefits.
If they're caught, the fraudsters are supposed to pay back what they owe. But how is that working out? You can't get blood out of a turnip and unless the government has evidence you deliberately defrauded them, they will simply reduce your benefit until the overpayment is paid back.
SNAP supporters try to make the claim that only the benefits for cash schemes is the only problem with the program. That simply isn't the case as defrauding the SNAP program is big business as the Georgia bust shows.