Investigators in a three-week probe of alleged food stamp abuses found instances of fraud - including accepting stamps for liquor, cigarettes and clothing - at 331 stores in three metropolitan areas, the Agriculture Department said Wednesday.
The investigation could result in some of the retailers being fined or barred permanently from the food stamp program. Targeted were stores suspected of abuses in and near Jacksonville, Fla., Seattle-Tacoma, and Virginia’s Tidewater area.
Undercover investigators from USDA’s Food and Consumer Service posed as customers and visited 798 stores, 41 percent were later cited for violations.
Eighty-two stores were accused of trafficking - buying food stamps for cash. The department said that together they bought $13,500 worth of food stamps for just over $6,900 in cash. Those stores face possible fines or permanent disqualification from the program.
An additional 249 stores sold items other than food in exchange for stamps, investigators said. Of the 249 alleged violations, 113 were serious enough for the stores to face possible fines or temporary disqualification. The other 136 stores will get warnings.
All the stores that were cited had redeemed $11 million worth of food stamps last year. The 82 accused of trafficking had redeemed $3.2 million.
Some 203,000 stores nationwide have permission to take food stamps, a program that will spend more than $26 billion this year to help feed 26 million people.
The investigation, called “Operation Trident,” was the first test of an intensive sweep to detect violations. “We will do this again,” said Ellen Haas, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.
The Agriculture Department estimates that trafficking drained $815 million from the food stamp program in 1993, while fraud and errors by caseworkers and recipients added $1.8 billion in losses.