Giving Welfare Users a Bad Name, $3.7 Million Dollar Scam
Cocaine-dealing shop owners are set to be thrown in jail for trading cash for SNAP. Throwing these criminals in jail will help the people who need a hand-up, not a hand-out.
Florida’s Attorney General Pam Bondi is on the case, announcing that over five years the Sheriff’s Office in Jacksonville, Florida have successfully worked with federal agents to find more than 22,000 bad transactions worth $3.7 million. So far, almost 200 people have been arrested in relation to businesses trading SNAP for drugs and cash.
How is SNAP Abused?
Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards are loaded with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. People receiving SNAP would give their card and PIN to the businesses. The business would deposit the money from the card into their business accounts, and in exchange would give the person receiving SNAP some money, and in at least one case, cocaine.
From 2012 to 2017, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has been following and documenting businesses that were suspected of illegally accepting SNAP.
Investigators say that in most cases, people receiving food stamp benefits who went along with the criminals would receive 50 cents on every dollar in SNAP. That is, they’d get half back.
Pam Bondi said that these schemes are “very active” in Florida and that she looks forward to seeing these suspects held accountable, praising the hard work and diligence of investigators.
You Got Caught!
Investigators were originally focused on brick-and-mortar store fronts but they soon found out that many of the suspects were operating their businesses on wheels. Generally, seafood, produce and meat vendors were using a mobile set-up, and because they were selling food they could apply to accept SNAP. Suspected businesses were going through very little in terms of product, but were processing millions in SNAP.
So far, 21 people out of the 198 suspects are considered to be recruiters, looking for people using SNAP. As well, 177 people are being charged with public assistance fraud because their transactions were over $200. There are 161 warrants still waiting to be issued.
The Sheriff’s Office showed off a few of the businesses they caught during a press conference.
Lawaun Walker’s Produce registered over 7,300 fraudulent transactions worth over $1 million, resulting in two arrests.
RNS Mobile Meats and Sisters Mobile Meats resulted in four arrests due to having processed almost 4,000 bad transactions worth over $570,000.
Sheonna’s Seafood resulted in four arrests with total SNAP sales of $1.2 million over almost 4,000 transactions.
URKO Ballers Produce totaled almost $1.1 million in sales and resulted in two arrests.
Previously: Operation Stampede
At the end of 2017, Operation Stampede charged 22 people with over $13 million in food stamp fraud. The Op, also taking place in Florida, targeted fraudsters in Palm Beach County and was centered on suspicious activity at a flea market, where customers would ring up their EBT cards but “rarely” leave with any items. Thousands of SNAP recipients were responsible for the activity.
Taxpayers, SNAP Users Respond
In a statement, Pam Bondi said:
“Food stamp trafficking steals from Florida’s hardworking taxpayers.”
One man, Hugh Hyatt said that the abuse is:
“…very frustrating because the people who actually have a need for EBT cards are getting shorted.”
Jasmine Coleman also spoke to local media. Coleman is currently working but is having trouble to make ends meet for her daughters, so she recently applied for SNAP.
“I’m a server and I don’t make that much and food is starting to get very expensive. [SNAP fraud is] making it harder for us to receive benefits and for us to actually get support and use it the right way.”
Florida Food Prices On Raise After Hurricane Damage
A professor at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences said that it wasn’t just the cash crops that were hit during Hurricane Irma.
Peanuts, avocados, sugar, strawberries, cotton and tomatoes were all upset by the storm but Prof. Rodney Clouser said that everything from zucchini to fish farms were hurt. During an interview in October of last year, he predicted that prices would rise in the short term, but that even before the hurricane hit, there was an expectation that crops including oranges would experience a price hike.
Of the estimated $2.5 billion in estimated damage to the food production industries in Florida, the hardest hit were citrus, cattle and dairy, making up almost 40% of the loss. While producers rebuild, Florida markets are all flooded with more expensive foreign alternatives. Part of the extra cost of bringing in these foreign products is that Floridian markets had not previously relied on imports, making it difficult for them to adjust to the costs and troubles associated with imports.
Price should stabilize by next summer, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stabilize at a higher overall price. SNAP will likely be used by more working people looking to make ends meet, and going after abusers will help free up millions and millions of dollars in benefits.
Sources: Orlando Sentinel, News 4 Jax