Why Maryland and Virginia? I’ve been following food stamp fraud for years—one of my favorite hobbies at Refugee Resettlement Watch. Here is one report there in February in which I mention the fraud bust of Mohammad Khan in Hagerstown five years ago. As many as 20,000 stores in the US are likely committing fraud!
Maryland and Virginia convenience store fraud doesn’t come up nearly so often as it does in places like Michigan (Dearborn neighborhoods for instance!). Although maybe Maryland and Virginia have not been as aggressive in the past in identifying those stores likely to be involved in trafficking of food stamp benefits.
Trafficking is what we are talking about here in the Baltimore Sun article, but if you were a casual reader you might not understand that. You might think it’s just some poor schlubs buying a few items not permitted to be purchased with food stamps. But, it’s not—-trafficking may involve as much as a million dollars worth of fraud in one store alone. Six-figure fraud is the most commonly detected in my unscientific review of cases.
Before I get to the Sun article. Here are a couple of juicy stories from just this past few weeks.
Here we have the Mohammad family of Gary, Indiana who were arrested earlier this month and indicted on Thursday for ripping off the US taxpayer for nearly $500,000. The Mohammads sent some of your money to an unidentified country.
And, then check out this story I posted just last Saturday from Pottstown, PA.
I’m making the politically-incorrect conclusion from over five years of following food stamp fraud busts that the vast majority involve immigrant-owned or managed stores. I rarely come across an American name involved in these cases—in fact, far fewer than one in ten.
Just a reminder that food stamp use in America jumped from 18.5 million people in 2001 to nearly 48 million people in 2012—there is a lot of the federal treasury sloshing around out there! See some interesting stats, here.
So, here is the story from the Baltimore Sun earlier this week:
The Maryland Department of Human Resources will step up efforts to find people who sell their food stamps for cash or otherwise defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, under a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.
The agencies will sign enhanced data sharing agreements to monitor the more than 754,000 Marylanders who receive food stamps and the nearly 3,800 retailers that accept the benefits.
Virginia will also participate in the initiative, which will gradually expand to other states over time. The two states were selected because of the size of their programs and a willingness to participate, said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.
“USDA is signaling a new front in our ongoing efforts to stop SNAP trafficking,” Concannon said. “Despite the low rate, fraud at any level is not tolerated. We are committed to working with states to make improvements that keep us ahead of the curve and provide Americans with the excellence they deserve when it comes to wisely managing their investment in SNAP.”
The rate that people exchange food stamps for money has fallen from 4 percent to about 1 percent over the past 15 years, Concannon said. [I’ll bet though that even if fewer people are doing it—the amount of money involved is much higher.—ed]
The drop is primarily due to the switch from paper vouchers to electronic benefit cards. Maryland was one of the first states to convert to the electronic cards.
The agreements are part of the continuing SNAP Stewardship Solutions Project, a scofflaw prevention effort that requires frequent review of retailers with a history or strong chance of committing fraud, among other checks.
The USDA has historically been charged with monitoring the 250,000 retail outlets nationwide that accept the benefits while the states screen the 47 million recipients, about half of whom are children. The goal of the new data sharing plan is to help Maryland and Virginia develop new tools to identify suspicious activity and spot patterns of misuse.
So, what can you do to help find the waste, fraud and abuse?
If you have a convenience store near you, or a mom and pop gas station that takes food stamps, keep an eye on the store. Does it have a lot of business—busy, busy all day with people in and out, but not much in their hands when they come out? Often times a store like this will have empty shelves—they are so busy committing fraud they don’t even bother to keep the shelves fully stocked.
You might even strike up a conversation with a young person in the neighborhood who frequents the store to see if they will let you in on how you too can turn your food stamp benefits into cold hard cash (usually at the rate of 50 cents on the dollar).
Turn your suspicions over to the local police department and they should then set up a sting. They should take it from there and bring in the Dept. of Agriculture.
The whole process though of shutting down a store involved in this type of crime can take a couple of years—the feds move like molasses I’ve noticed!
Once the ball is rolling but you see that the case is just creeping along, you can write to your US Senators and your Congressional Representative and let them know you want speedy action.