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Government fighting food stamp fraud

USDA announces efforts to clean up program use

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Thinking of selling your federally subsidized food stamps on Craigslist? Uncle Sam says that's a big no-no, and anyone who advertises their "intent to sell" these benefits risks getting kicked off the nation's largest feeding program for the poor.

ith a record 46.2 million people receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Agriculture Department on Tuesday announced plans to step up its efforts to combat fraud, waste and abuse in the program.

"SNAP has never been more important, as hardworking families turn to the program for assistance while they get back on their feet," Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, said Tuesday, unveiling a host of efforts the department is undertaking to ensure that food benefits will be used as intended.

The rate of fraudulent trafficking in SNAP has fallen to 1 percent, which is "very, very significant" given the large scale of the program, he said. "We're not satisfied with that in any way, shape or form."

The USDA will do more to assist states in their surveillance and "data-mining" systems, Mr. Concannon said. The effort targets unscrupulous retailers, including those who illegally convert a recipient's benefits to cash, give them half the money, and then redeem the full amount from the government.

It is also illegal to advertise the sale of SNAP or electronic benefits transfer debit cards on Facebook, Craigslist or other public places, Mr. Concannon said.

This policy change was sparked by incidents such as a Washington state woman telling her Facebook friends her SNAP card was for sale. An undercover officer met the woman and gave her $100 for her card, which had $200 in benefits on it. In another incident, a New Mexico woman put an ad on Craigslist to sell her $400 SNAP benefits for $200 cash.

"Half the price twice the food," she wrote before being contacted by a local TV station. The ad was quickly removed.

Before the food stamp program converted to an electronic payment system in the 2000s, the paper coupons were like a second currency in poor neighborhoods. Fraud and trafficking estimates once went as high as 10 percent of the benefits issued.

Trafficking losses have plummeted and are now about 1 cent on the dollar. But with SNAP distribution at record-high levels, this level of loss is still unacceptable, Mr. Concannon said.

Agriculture officials said Monday a record 46.2 million Americans received a total of $75.3 billion in food aid under SNAP in fiscal 2011, representing 6 million people and $7 billion more than the previous year. Part of the totals reflect increased usage along the East Coast in the wake of Hurricane Irene.

Given a 1 percent fraud rate, the new totals suggest that approximately $753 million was lost to fraud in the last fiscal year from the food stamp program.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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