NBC12 Investigates: Food stamp fraud

By Melissa Correa - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Food stamps aren't stamps anymore. Each month an allowance is placed on one a card that is similar to a credit or debit card. They come with enhanced security features. But just as the program has evolved, so has the fraud.

Robin Stufano has logged more hours on the phone, than some of the most talkative teens.
She and her partner are the Fraud Unit for Chesterfield County Department of Social Services.

"We've definitely had an increase in the calls," said Robin Stufano. "They're calling in and saying 'well this person's working at XYZ store and I know that they're getting the benefits.'"

Come up with a story about possible food stamp fraud and chances are she's heard it because in the last five years, the number of participants has jumped from a mere 5,000 to more than 10,000. The number of open fraud investigations is also rising.

"We currently have about 125 open investigations," Stufano said.

Around 25-30 complaints are made weekly. Tips come in from family members, even shoppers, eyeing what they believe is suspicious activity.

"We have to investigate every referral," she said.

But often times, with a check of the state employment database, cases are quickly closed.

"There's a good number of-they just call in and the person isn't even on benefits anymore," said Stufano.

Investigators say they receive a lot of calls -- people confused about what food stamps can be used for.  Now they can't be used on paper goods, prepared meals, or beer and cigarettes, but they can be used to buy a wedding cake.

"Just because it's a public assistance benefit doesn't mean that we try to control every decision that a family makes," said Director of Chesterfield Department of Social Services Marsha Sharpe.

Sharpe says S.N.A.P. -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- is just that. Families have the choice on what food is purchased. She says that doesn't sit well with some tax-payers.

"They'll say 'I saw so-and-so buying such-and-such at the market and I don't believe they should be,'" Sharpe said.

When most people think of food stamp fraud they think of people selling their benefits. But actually, the more popular crime is giving false information. False information can be: not reporting actual income, the number of people in a home, or the county of residence.

"If they try to get benefits in another locality at the same time that they're getting benefits at this locality, they can be barred from the program for 10 years," Stufano said.

And there are two types of trouble: inadvertent household error -- when a person doesn't know information like income, needs to be updated; or fraud. Both require all benefits to be paid back.

If found guilty of fraud, a person must wait one year before re-applying. With a second offense -- wait two years. Three strikes and you're out.

Yet even with boosted participation and complaints, in the last five years, Chesterfield Social Services reports only 105 people have been guilty of fraud. The reason for the low number: intense training for case counselors and added security features for cards -- like a pin number.

In order to qualify for supplemental nutrition assistance you must meet income and household requirements. The Chesterfield Department of Social Services reports food stamps are temporary and most people leave the program after a year.

If you want to know how many cases of food stamp fraud are in your area, click here. We've posted information including the number of convictions and open investigations

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