Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, fraud, is the act of deliberately deceiving the state to get food benefits or misusing those benefits. The agency issuing the SNAP benefits investigates once it is alerted to possible fraud. Penalties include paying restitution, paying fines, disqualification from SNAP and incarceration. Clients and retailers can also commit fraud by accepting cash for the use of SNAP benefits. Disqualified retailers can also get in trouble for lying on an application to become a SNAP retailer.
The Department of Agriculture changed the name of the food stamp program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in the 2008 Farm Bill. People still use the names interchangeably, but they mean the same thing.
Initiating the Investigation
An investigation begins with the discovery of inconsistent information that prompts a report to the state's SNAP agency. This happens through a tip, computer match or through quality control. The quality control process involves analyzing cases for accuracy. For example, SNAP recipients must explain how they make ends meet by answering questions at their certification interview about their financial management. If a recipient reports very low income but pays bills each month, this could indicate that the client has unreported income.
Each state SNAP agency uses a computer program to determine eligibility. This program interfaces with other databases, such as the unemployment office, child support office and government agencies, such as the Bureau of Vital Statistics and prison systems. When a client's situation changes, such as when a household member leaves for prison, the SNAP agency gets a match alert. State policies might vary. For example, in Texas, the Office of the Inspector General receives this alert. The OIG also receives alerts from other programs through the Health and Human Service's Income and Eligibility Verification System, or IEVS.
The federal government has a SNAP fraud hotline, anyone may call to report possible fraud. However, triggers might not lead to an investigation, but may prompt a letter to the SNAP recipient requesting additional information. Investigators decide the appropriate response.
Even if you provide all requested verification of pertinent information, and the documentation seems inconsistent, caseworkers can certify your case and report possible fraud. This action also triggers an investigation.
Once there's a triggering event, investigators contact people of interest in the case. Generally, parties receive a letter requesting documentation. For example, your employer might receive a letter asking to verify your income. Investigators may make in-person visits to your home. They can also take pictures of your property to determine your resources. Investigators may also set up undercover sting operations.
When investigating retailers, authorities use a tracking system known as the Anti-Fraud Locator Using EBT Retailer Transactions, or the ALERT system, that monitors SNAP purchases through the Electronic Benefit Transfer system, or EBT system. All purchases using SNAP are made with a card similar to a debit card, which records every purchase. The investigators conduct data mining to track unusual trends in purchases such as a spike in SNAP sales at a particular store.
If there is evidence of fraud, you may have to attend an administrative hearing or receive a summons to appear in court under a Waiver of Intentional Program Violation Hearing. Receiving a court summons depends on one of two circumstances: the investigators found that you willfully deceived the state with misleading statements or concealed facts, or you committed a crime that violates the Food Stamp Act. The length of the investigation varies by state and case circumstances.
To prove fraud, the evidence must show that you intentionally deceived a party into providing a benefit you would not have otherwise received if you'd told the truth. The government understands human error and computer errors occur. If you received an over-payment, but did so because you inadvertently left out key information about your situation, you probably won't be prosecuted for fraud. This is why some SNAP fraud cases take a long time to complete. Investigators must be sure the law was violated. According to the Atlanta Daily World, an investigation in Atlanta went on for two years because of the complexity of the scheme.
- Department of Agriculture: What is Food Stamp Fraud?
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: Law Enforcement Crackdown on Food Stamp Fraud
- Department of Agriculture: What is FNS Doing to Fight SNAP Fraud
- California Guide to Food Benefits: Computer and Electronic Data Sources
- SNAP to Health: The History of SNAP
Michelle Dwyer is a U.S. Army veteran writing fiction and nonfiction since 2003. She specializes in business, careers, leadership, military affairs and organizational change and behavior. Dwyer received an MBA from Tarleton State University/Texas A&M Central Texas and an MFA in creative writing from National University in La Jolla, Calif.