JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sheriff Mike Williams announced Tuesday the results of an undercover investigation into exchanging the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for cash and, in at least one case, cocaine.
From 2012 to 2017, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detectives worked with federal and state agencies to document more than 22,000 fraudulent transactions involving $ 3.7 million in taxpayers’ money.
“These people are selling or stealing money from hardworking taxpayers here in our community and abusing a program designed to help people,” Williams said.
CLOCK: More than a dozen arrested in Operation Half-Back
Williams said that during Operation Half-Back, undercover officers personally observed 115 people in 390 fraudulent transactions from February to July 2017.
Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office will pursue these crimes.
“These programs are very active in our state and I look forward to my office holding these defendants accountable,” Bondi said in a statement, applauding law enforcement agencies for their efforts. “Because of your industry and hard work, this program has ended.”
Investigators said those with SNAP / EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards would give the buyer their PIN number and that the money would then be deposited into their accounts.
Williams said in most cases the recipient of the grocery brand got 50 cents for every $ 1 SNAP benefit. Every transaction was recorded.
The operation initially focused on brick and mortar store operators, but investigators learned that many of the perpetrators turned into mobile businesses – such as meat, seafood, and produce vendors – so they could apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to accept SNAP services. Williams said they sold very little goods as most of their volume was trading SNAP benefits for cash.
The suspects include 21 people who are considered recruiters or intermediaries charged with organized fraud and fraud aid.
There were also 177 people alleged to have sold their services on charges of publicly sponsored fraud – most of those crimes because the transaction was in excess of $ 200. The sheriff’s office said 161 arrest warrants are pending issuance.
“The grocery stamp trade steals Florida’s hardworking taxpayers,” Bondi said in a statement. “The SNAP / EBT program is designed to provide services to the most vulnerable among us, and it is shameful for anyone to use this system.”
READ: Office of Public Benefits Integrity Response to SNAP Fraud Investigation
The Office of Public Benefits Integrity told News4Jax that if those arrested are found guilty of fraud, they will have to repay that money.
“It’s very frustrating because the people who actually need the EBT cards are getting shorted out,” said taxpayer Hugh Hyatt.
Jasmine Coleman, who recently applied for SNAP benefits, said it was annoying to know that people are abusing the program designed to help families like her.
“To support my daughters and me, I’m a waiter and I don’t make that much money and the food gets very expensive,” she said. “It makes it harder for us to get benefits and actually get support and use it properly.”
Bondi said the crimes were unacceptable.
“We will not tolerate these nefarious acts and we will continue to protect our Florida taxpayers and the countless legitimate recipients of these benefits,” said Bondi.
Williams selected four companies that he said were the biggest offenders found during the fraud investigation.
- Open from May 2012 to November 2015
- 7,390 fraudulent transactions
- SNAP transactions valued at just over $ 1 million.
- Two men arrested.
- Operation from October 2015 to August 2017
- 3,958 fraudulent transactions
- Total sales with SNAP: $ 572,282
- One man and three women arrested.
- Open from November 2013 to August 2015
- 3,958 transactions
- Total SNAP revenue: $ 1.2 million.
- Three men and one woman arrested
- In business from May 2012 to November 2015
- 7,164 fraudulent transactions
- Total SNAP sales of nearly $ 1.1 million
- A man arrested a woman
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