Welfare fraud spreads with EBT cards

By Jim Suber

The food stamps have been replaced by Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that ended checkout lane shame, supposedly, and helped users buy virtually everything else in the store non-welfare recipients enjoy. Fast, private, plastic. Pretty nifty.

But wait. There’s more. The EBT magic failed to prevent fraud.

In Georgia in September I was visiting my mother. One morning the daily Macon Telegraph displayed a top-fold, Page One lead story about a food stamp fraud case in a central Georgia rural county fraught with poverty, a low tax base and fewer than 10,000 folks, some of whom are afflicted by drug abuse and unfit and/or absent parents.

The operators of two tiny stores, one described as a legitimate grocery, and the other as a 12-foot-by 16-foot metal structure similar to backyard tool sheds were both found guilty of food stamp fraud between 2006 and 2011, and from 2009 to early 2011. Sentencing was scheduled for this fall.

The total amounts skimmed from the taxpayers in that time by the stores and their customers was right at $6 million. Some stores charge a 50 percent fee to make the illegal transactions, but the two in Wilkinson offered better rates, and some regular customers would drive 100 miles for the break. One owner was said to have garnered $4.5 million in fraudulent sales, and of that he pocketed $1.4 million in “profit.” That store had a larger sales volume than a modern chain grocery store in a more urban county 40 miles away.

The second store robbed taxpayers of $800,000, at least. His store was a real food outlet, and some of the EBT business was on the level in that period. One owner seemed very contrite, and was described as being helpful to authorities. Nevertheless, his fine was said to be set at $250,000. Each of the owners could receive up to five years in prison, and be told to pay back money they stole. Some 16 frequent customers were also rounded up and face sentencing and repayment schedules.

At the end of the article, which was very long by today’s newspaper standards, one of the investigators, county deputy Heath Bache, was quoted as saying: “If we’re doing $6 million in four years with just two businesses, what’s Atlanta doing? What’s Macon doing?” Bache said he thought it was a national and state epidemic, the reporter wrote.

No kidding. To compare for perspective, Atlanta is some larger than Kansas City; Macon is about the same size as Topeka.

What broke the story is that one night in the summer of 2010 in the wee hours someone saw four small children wandering around a little town unattended. Summoned deputies, including Bache, found the children and then their mother who was high on methamphetamine. There was no food in her double wide trailer home. She said she had left her EBT card at a store where she had used it to borrow money. That triggered the investigation, which alone took more than six months before the court processes began.

This story breaks my heart for what has happened to my America. If this is routine in a backwoods, recently Christian and hard-working rural county, I have to echo the deputy. What then is going on among the 320 million of the rest of us?

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