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Wilson: Fighting back against food stamp fraud
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Every day, in every area of our state, hardworking South Carolina taxpayers are being robbed. They are not held up at gunpoint and their homes are not burglarized. But, they are the victims of theft just the same. Criminals are stealing federal funds and using that money for their personal benefit. They are committing fraud against the food stamp program. In fact, they pocket more than $2 million of your tax dollars every year in South Carolina alone.

This crime wastes money by diverting funds from the families who use the program for its intended purpose. That is why the Attorney General’s Office and state Department of Social Services (DSS) have teamed up to fight food stamp fraud.

Truly needy people should never suffer from hunger in a nation as abundant as ours. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) helps assure that the poorest among us do not go without food. Commonly known as the food stamp program, SNAP issues recipients a debit card, which is automatically credited with the qualifying benefit amount each month. Recipients use that card to buy unprepared food items such as milk and meat, bread, beans and rice to feed their families.

The vast majority of SNAP recipients use their card to buy food. But as with any type of crime, there is an element that is motivated by personal greed. They seek to turn public generosity into personal profit.

Their scheme is simple: they take their SNAP card to a retailer, who charges a certain amount to it. The retailer then gives the SNAP recipient half that amount in cash. It is then often spent on alcohol, drugs or personal luxuries, such as designer handbags. You and I, as taxpayers, are stuck with the bill.

These criminals are so brazen, they sometimes even advertise their willingness to sell SNAP benefits on social media.

This is more than a moral outrage. It is a crime, and the offenders must be found and prosecuted.

That is why on January 2 of this year, the Attorney General’s Office launched a special unit dedicated to prosecuting food stamp fraud. We are going after people who are defrauding the government out of money that should be going to individuals who truly need it to survive.

We are participating in the South Carolina SNAP Recipient Trafficking Prosecution Pilot Program. As with illegal drugs and other crimes, trafficking means the buying, selling, stealing, or exchanging of SNAP benefits for cash or consideration other than eligible food. 

Funding is provided by a $318,840 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a joint partnership between DSS and the Attorney General’s Office.  Once a potential case is identified by a DSS investigator, it is sent to the Attorney General’s Office for review and prosecution.

I am pleased to report that in the short time it has been up and running, the SNAP Recipient Trafficking Prosecution Pilot Program has already resulted in several cases pending before the courts, and nearly two dozen others under investigation.

South Carolina has the opportunity to lead by example. Similar programs are being developed in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kansas and Texas.  I am hopeful the initial success of our new SNAP Recipient Trafficking Prosecution Pilot Program will serve as a model for those states.

In addition, the Attorney General’s Office also operates two similar, and highly successful, programs. The Medicaid Recipient Fraud Unit actively prosecutes individuals who seek to defraud that important service, while the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit prosecutes providers who file fraudulent reimbursement claims with Medicaid.

As a federal taxpayer, you have the right to expect that federal funds are used for their intended purposes. When abuse occurs, you have the right to expect those who seek to steal from us through fraud are held accountable for their actions in a court of law.   

By working together to safeguard our tax dollars and stop waste through fraud, we can all help make South Carolina an even better place to live, work and raise a family.    

 If you know or suspect someone who is committing food stamp fraud, please report it by calling a special tip line at 1-800-616-1309.