There are a few ways an individual can be charged with SNAP fraud. Committing fraud with SNAP benefits is a serious offense and carries consequences of which many people may not be aware. Looking at the kinds of fraud related to SNAP benefits and the penalties indicates that hiring an experienced lawyer may be the best option for those facing these kinds of charges.
What is SNAP Fraud?
As mentioned above, there are a number of ways people use their SNAP benefits to commit fraud. One popular method is by trafficking their allowed benefits, or selling them for cash. Additionally, fraud is committed by those who lie on their initial application, either to qualify for benefits or to receive more benefits than they should be granted.
Better managing of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in recent years has reduced the incidences of trafficking, protecting the investments of both taxpayers and the federal government. The goal in this crackdown is to ensure that the families with the greatest need are the ones receiving SNAP benefits, as opposed to those prone to abusing the system. The USDA accomplishes this by monitoring SNAP purchases and seeking out suspicious activity. From there, the USDA initiates undercover investigations, working with other government agencies to uncover individuals committing SNAP fraud.
Individuals aren’t the only ones committing SNAP fraud. Some less reputable retailers, who may have been disqualified from participating in the program, may lie on a new application to become eligible again. These retailers are guilty of abusing the program for their own financial gain and are likely reapplying to commit the same deceptions again.
As of 2012, a review of 15,000 stores and 4,500 criminal investigations resulted in penalties for 1,400 stores. Business owners of these establishments were found to have been committing fraudulent acts, which disqualified them from participating in the program. Many business owners were also fined for engaging in SNAP fraud schemes. In addition to fraud, over 700 stores were fined for allowing SNAP customers to buy unsanctioned items. In 2012 alone, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General obtained 342 convictions for SNAP violations, sending many defendants to prison for terms of several years each.
The 5 Most Common SNAP Violations
1. Trafficking – This violation carries the stiffest penalties, because of the nature of the fraud. This is a deliberately criminal act in which the individual is selling, or trafficking, their allowed benefits. Penalties include a permanent disqualification and fines up to $100,000 for each violation.
2. Selling Firearms, Weapons, and Controlled Substances – Directed at the seller, this carries an equally stiff penalty. It often also results in the same penalty as trafficking, including the $100,000 fine for each violation. Selling three guns, for example, would result in a $300,000 fine in addition to permanent disqualification.
3. Selling Tobacco Products, Alcohol, and Other Non-Food Items – Committing this violation carries a less severe penalty and offers the court a choice in how the business is penalized. There’s either a 3 to 5 year disqualification from participating in the SNAP program, or a fine, commonly known as a civil money penalty. The fine is considered in cases where the disqualification would pose a hardship for SNAP recipients in the neighborhood.
4. Selling Common Ineligible Items – These purchases include toiletries and paper goods, junk food, and other non-food items. Many places don’t have an automated system for separating eligible and restricted items, leaving it up to the customer and the cashier to ensure proper use of the EBT card. This violation isn’t always intentional, but it still carries penalties, including a 6-month to a 3-year suspension from participating in the program. Again, a civil money penalty can be established in place of the disqualification.
5. Unauthorized Use of the EBT Card – There are a number of ways this is done. Entering the customer’s PIN at the point of sale, storing the EBT card information for future use, or accepting SNAP benefits for an earlier transaction are all restricted actions and committing these acts carry penalties. The EBT card must be present to run any transaction.
While there are some violations that can be committed through happenstance, most fraud is the result of an intentional act. If you have received notification that your SNAP participation has been suspended or revoked, an experienced lawyer may be able to help.