Audit shows millions wasted by SNAP fraud

Tuesday, May 7, 2013 - 6:00am

A new state report of the SNAP system shows that people have used millions of dollars that do not belong to them to buy things they are not supposed to get.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor went through the books for the last three years, finding thousands of cases of abuse and overpayments.

Some of the problems highlighted in the report were due to the state Department of Child and Family Services' inability to verify the eligibility of applicants. It found that 1,157 people accepted $841,615 in overpayments due to clerical errors.

"As with all programs, DCFS works to ensure the SNAP program is available for eligible applicants by aggressively protecting against fraud and abuse," said DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier. "DCFS has safeguards in place to ensure that only eligible citizens receive SNAP benefits, identify those who are dishonest about their eligibility and to pursue recoupment and/or prosecution in each case.

"Over the past two years, DCFS has worked to modernize its systems with the launch of CAFÉ, which provides greater safeguards in determining eligibility such as data mining with our federal and state partners. As a result of this and other improvements, DCFS has seen its overall payment error rate improve to 4th best in the nation and continues to see its timeliness of cases above the national average."

Many cases of fraud were committed by participants. The audit showed that 1,761 inmates collected SNAP benefits while in prison. They used $1,107,740 while behind bars.

And 322 people claimed SNAP funds even though they had incomes greater than $50,000. They misused more than $750,000.

Advocates for the disadvantaged believe that waste is taking food off the tables of people who really need it.

"Here at St. Vincent de Paul, we served a record 236,000 meals last year," said the organization's CEO, Michael Acaldo, "so there were so many people that were truly in need."

A growing number of people need help finding their next meal. Nearly 900,000 Louisiana residents turn to SNAP cards to pay for groceries. But lots of those people are wasting your tax dollars and hurting the cause of non-profits that work with low-income individuals.

"When something like this happens, it wastes support from the public that could go to families that really need help," Acaldo said.

The report also found retailers that abused the system. SNAP benefits are only supposed to go for groceries, and only cold food items. But there were almost two thousand people who spent at least $300 in a single trip to a convenience store. Since convenience stores typically do not offer many grocery items, those transactions were flagged as suspicious.

The report also found nearly 700,000 sales in which the total purchase price was a whole number, including 27,832 for exactly $100. The likely cause of such results is that the stores gave people cash instead of food.

The average participant receives roughly $300 per month from SNAP to feed their families. For most people, it is not enough.

"We serve a lot more people at the end of the month than at the beginning of the month," Acaldo said. "I'm in my 24th year here, and all those 24 years multiplied by 12, every one of those months, "we see more people at the end of the month than we've seen at the beginning of the month, because their benefits have run out, they're waiting for a paycheck, or whatever the case may be."

The report provided four recommendations, including increased data analysis and better communication with the Department of Corrections to identify current inmates. DCFS agreed with all four recommendations.

"DCFS takes seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of the resources provided," Sonnier said. "DCFS is reviewing all the cases cited in the report for potential fraud and will work with authorities to prosecute those who have purposely tried to defraud the system."  

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