In small groceries and convenience stores nationwide, the act of food stamp trafficking is on the rise.
“It’s misuse of the program,” says USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon. “It’s a misuse of taxpayer dollars at a tough time. Not only the people who need the program are having a tough time, but the people who are paying for the program are having a tough time, too.”
According to reports, store owners swipe the customers Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card for a given amount and allow customers to buy non-food items, such as laundry soap, pet food, non-prescription medication and other items prohibited by the program. Some retailers are suspected of exchanging the benefits on the card for actual cash, in a lesser amount. This is a felony and in the last few years the USDA has made 597 convictions and issued $197.4 million in “fines, restitution and forfeiture orders.”
Of the 234,000 stores nationwide that accept food stamps, 931 stores were removed from the food stamp program due to trafficking and another 907 were punished for less blatant violations. An owner of a 7-Eleven franchise was stripped of his licence after investigators found food stamp redemption went from $228,000 to almost $1 million in just a couple of years.
USDA investigator Christopher Robinson was involved in the 7-Eleven case. He explains, “If a customer was very loyal, and used his store on a regular basis, then they would charge these customers less to provide them with cash back for their food stamps.”
Since 2008 the federal agency has been ramping up its surveillance of stores and just last month awarded a 10-year contract, $25 million to SRA International Inc, which also provides services for homeland security, the Department of Defense, branches of the military and other various intelligence agencies.