Live 5 Investigates: How food stamp recipients are cheating taxpayers

Live 5 Investigates: How food stamp recipients are cheating taxpayers
Published: Feb. 20, 2014 at 8:15 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 20, 2014 at 11:38 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A Live 5 News investigation has uncovered how some food stamp recipients in South Carolina are cheating the system.

Our investigation revealed the cheaters are using the Internet and social media among other tricks when they go shopping for things not on the state's approved list.

After her fiance died at the hands of a suspected drunk driver, Brittany Craven applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP to help feed her kids.

It's food stamps on an EBT card.

"With two kids and no income, it's really difficult to make ends meet," said Craven.

The North Charleston woman knows there are restrictions on what she is allowed to buy on the program.

"You can only buy food that's already prepared," Craven explained.

Craven plays by the rules, but there are many who do not and are using your tax money to commit fraud.

"I think it's a problem that we have, is fairly large and something that we're trying to get a handle on," said Karama Bailey of the S.C. Department of Social Services.

According to DSS, during the first six months of 2013, 311 food stamp clients intentionally gave false information on their applications for food stamp benefits.

It cost taxpayers $912,285.00.

DSS broke down the numbers from the Tri County area.

The agency said there were 41 cases in Berkeley County, costing taxpayers $99,343.00.

There were 35 fraud cases in Charleston County, that cost $79,959.00.

There were 28 fraud cases in Dorchester County costing taxpayers $135,865.24.

We asked DSS if taxpayers should be angry.

"Of course, that's the easy answer. Of course, they should be," said Bailey.

DSS says most of the big grocery chains have the tools in place to detect fraud.

Their computers won't allow items not on the food stamp list, such as cigarettes or alcohol to be bought.

They also have cameras to keep an eye on the cashiers.

However, officials say many of the so called mom and pop stores and some convenience stores don't have that technology, meaning fraud is more likely, where both the EBT card holder and the store operator have the opportunity to cheat and cash in.

Numbers we obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture show in the last five months 30 stores in South Carolina have been busted for committing food stamp fraud.

Five of those stores are in Charleston and North Charleston and are permanently disqualified from accepting food stamps.

Officials say that means the store owner will not be allowed to participate in the program anymore.

We went to the local stores to get a comment and only one owner responded.

The owner of the Rawan Market on King Street told us on the phone it was the previous owner who was cited and that he's applied to get permission to take EBT cards again.

It's not just stores that break the law.

Bailey says some food stamp recipients sell their cards to friends or even strangers on websites such as Twitter and Craigslist.

In fact, when I went on Facebook to find someone to interview for my investigation, a woman let folks know she wanted to buy food stamps.

she wrote, 'Anybody selling EBT since we all here inbox me.'

"There's no technology that can stop that. Short of being in that household, there's nothing I can do," Bailey of DSS explained.

It's fraud that makes honest EBT card holders like Craven angry.

"I think it gives a bad rap for the people that actually need it," she said.

DSS believes it is winning the war against food stamp fraud.

"Now does that mean they're not gonna get smarter after all of these reports that we're doing? I think they will, but then we just have to catch up and try something different," Bailey said.

South Carolina is about to be part of a new, national program to fight food stamp fraud.

Our state is one of eight participating in the project.

Officials are yet to release how it will work.

Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law a bill that requires all stores that accept EBT cards to upgrade their systems and have technology to prevent ineligible items from being bought.

that will include convenience stores.

Officials say the order will not become effective until the department of agriculture issues regulations implementing it. This is likely to take at least several months.

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