12 Investigates: Food stamps sold illegally online

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - One out of every eight Virginians relies on the government to help them buy food each month. The number of families on food stamps (also called the SNAP program) in Virginia has doubled in just the last seven years, and as 12 Investigates discovered, so have the number of fraud allegations.

Go on Facebook or Twitter and just type in, "food stamps for sale." You'll be amazed at the number of people openly trying to trade their benefits for cash. The benefits are often advertised as 50 cents on the dollar.

Priscilla Eggleston baby sits to make money. It's not enough to survive on, she says she depends on her food stamps. "I Can't afford to sell no food stamps online because what I get I need."

She also knows it's illegal. "If you get caught you're going to be in trouble so why risk something that you're going to get free anyway," she adds.

But plenty of people are openly risking it online. Craigslist is a hotspot for posts like this - "I'm selling 100 dollars in food stamps for 50 cash. Email or text me."

Click on Twitter and there's tweet after tweet of people looking to buy and sell their benefits.

"It's kind of hard, but we do periodically look at Craigslist," says Virginia Department of Social Services spokesperson Tom Steinhauser. He says they also look at, "some of the other social networks too. To see if folks are selling their benefits, but it's difficult to track them down."

That's because without even trolling the Internet, the Virginia Department of Social Services receives on average 12,000 allegations of food stamp fraud each year.

"That's a pretty sizeable number," adds Steinhauser.

Also considering that the commonwealth only has around 120 fraud investigators, one in each of the social service agencies around the state. Steinhauser says, "11,000 of them (the complaints) have been actually investigated and we found about 1800 that were substantiated."

IF you look at our area, There were 566 fraud allegations in Chesterfield last year. 565 in Richmond. Hundreds more in Henrico, Hanover and Petersburg. Out of all the cases investigated in our area, 10% of them were found to be true cases of fraud.

Those who abuse the program get three strikes. The first offense- your banned for a year. 2nd time- 2 years. It's not until a third offense that you're banned for life from food stamps.

Steinhauser says they look for "somebody not reporting income. Somebody not reporting a change in their household composition or when somebody moves out. If they get a larger benefit, but they really have a smaller household."

And it's not just the recipients committing fraud either. We obtained a list of stores in Virginia sanctioned by the US Department of Agriculture's Food Nutrition Services over the last 3 years.

80 stores in the Commonwealth were banned from dealing in food stamps, most were caught trafficking. A third of the violators were stores based in Richmond. The second largest number of stores sanctioned were in Petersburg.

We stopped by several locations on the list. Most still were not accepting food stamps. Some even had signs up claiming the EBT machine was broken.

The USDA tell us even the stores banned for exchanging benefits for cash can participate in the program again. They prove they are under new ownership. A few of the banned stores we visited in Richmond told us they were in the middle of applying to deal in food stamps once again.

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