Food stamp vouchers are an excellent option for families who are having a difficult time making ends meet. The vouchers are provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and are used in exchange for food at grocery stores and other participating retailers. Country-wide programs are put in place by the Food and Nutrition Service to ensure that local organizations and State agencies are equipped to help those in their community who are in need.
SNAP benefits are housed on an electronic benefits transer (EBT) card, which functions the same way a debit card would. The amount of food stamps given depends upon the family’s situation. A household with more dependents and less income is generally entitled to a larger food stamp allowance. And as helpful as the SNAP program may be, it is taken advantage of in more ways than one. Below, we’ll take an in-depth look at these transgressions – the different types, how it is handled, and the penalties of food stamp fraud.
Food Stamp Fraud Defined
What is food stamp fraud? When someone intentionally provides misleading information about the size of their household or the amount of their income on an application for food stamps, they may be guilty of food stamp fraud. And while this is the most common form of food stamp fraud, there are other examples that happen more often than you’d think.
SNAP fraud can also take place through:
- “SNAP trafficking” (receiving cash in exchange for the SNAP card)
- Providing false information about how much money you make
- Buying something that is outside the scope of your food stamp benefits
- Commiting SNAP retailer fraud
How Is Food Stamp Fraud Tracked?
While food stamp fraud does happen, it is getting harder and harder to get away with it. Tracking fraud and preventing it is a high priority for the government, and they are able to monitor fradulent activity through undercover investigations, regular audits, and retailer/buyer data. With technological advances, it is easier for the USDA to track suspicious behavior and catch those who commit food stamp fraud. But what are the penalties?
Penalties Of Food Stamp Fraud
The government agency responsible for dispensation of food stamps may conduct an investigation if they receive information or suspect that someone is committing food stamp fraud. The investigation may include visits to the home of the family who is receiving assistance. It may also involve interviews with family and neighbors who can attest to the size of the household and any income sources.
If the agency believes that food stamp fraud has been committed, then they have several steps available to them. The first of these is a disqualification hearing. During the hearing, the agency must prove that the individual intended to commit fraud. If they are successful at doing so, the person who wrongfully received food stamp assistance may become ineligible for such help for a specified period of time. Moreover, they may be required to repay any amounts received in excess of their rightful entitlement.
It is also possible for the agency to pursue criminal charges at the misdemeanor or felony level. The ability to file criminal charges, and the penalties enforced, vary considerably between counties and states. Nonetheless, individuals who commit food stamp fraud may find themselves facing up to one year in jail and a substantial fine. For subsequent offenses, or for food stamp fraud involving larger dollar amounts, the accused may be facing up to five years in prison, several years of probation or an even bigger fine.
Avoiding Legal Action
The individual who would rather avoid both a hearing and a possible criminal charge may elect to waive the disqualification hearing. By doing so, the person is giving up benefits for a predetermined time period, and may also be required to pay back the overage they received. In these situations, it is typically best not to admit any wrongdoing, as this may leave the individual open for criminal prosecution. The advice of an attorney may be helpful when it comes to deciding which approach to take.
Defense Against Food Stamp Fraud
If you are being charged of food stamp fraud, it is best to seek help from an experience fraud defense attorney.
How To Report Food Stamp Fraud
If you believe that someone is misusing their SNAP benefits or cheating the system as a retailer, there are options to report the crime. To report food stamp fraud (SNAP fraud), all you have to do is reach out to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. You can file a complaint over the phone, through written mail, or with an online submission. For more direction, here’s a look at our guide on reporting food stamp fraud.
If you are planning to apply for food stamps, or know of someone who here, check out the details of the SNAP application process.