JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Nearly 200 people who police said traded food stamp benefits for cash not only face criminal charges, they will also lose their access to their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits for at least one year.
Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams announced Tuesday that a multiyear undercover investigation called Operation Half-Back had busted several fraudulent businesses that were exchanging people's SNAP for cash, giving them 50 cents on the dollar.
Police were charing 21 people accused of running the scheme with organized fraud, but 177 others accused of cashing in the benefits were to be charged with public assistance fraud. Most of those people were charged with felonies because the transaction was worth more than $200.
What those people will soon learn is they will also lose their benefits.
According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, which administers the federal SNAP program in the state:
- First-time offenders are disqualified from receiving benefits for 12 months.
- Second-time offenders are disqualified from receiving benefits for 24 months.
- If someone is caught a third time, they will never again be eligible for the program.
Many food stamp recipients are applauding this crackdown on widespread fraud. Some SNAP recipients said they also think stiffer penalties need to be put into place for those caught abusing the system.
Ronie Butler says the SNAP program helped her family afford the specialized food her grandson needs because of his allergies.
"Specialized food costs more, three time the amount of money than regular just cheese and crackers," Butler said. "I have to buy gluten-free and soy-free."
She also thinks the punishment should be tougher to make people think twice before they steal from taxpayers like herself.
"I think it was a big deal because that was my money," Butler said. "I was working for a while, and that was my money. I was paying for taxes that went to these programs and now I need them and we have all this fraud."
Patricia Long said she's familiar with some of the mobile meat, seafood and produce vendors who applied to the Department of Agriculture to accept SNAP benefits. Police said it was vendors like these that sold very little actual merchandise, and instead made most of their money exchanging SNAP benefits for cash.
"I’ve seen big trucks coming through my apartments and they sell ribs, steak," Long said. "When the man approached me, I asked him, 'Will I get in trouble for messing with my food stamp money to get the food?' And he said it won't affect me at all."
DCF spokesman David Frady told the I-TEAM that the government uses several tactics to get their money back, once someone is caught.
"If they don't pay the money back, then our office can intercept their lottery winnings, their tax returns and any other income sources that they may have," Frady said.
A Sheriff's Office spokesperson said while it is still rounding up those already charged in Operation Half-Back, investigators are still getting tips and there will likely be even more arrests coming.
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