In Massachusetts, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is intended to allow families on a limited income to buy nutritious food from local grocery stores. Benefits are provided in the form of an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a debit card. However, some of those neighborhood stores are fraudulently letting customers exchange their EBT credit for cash-in-hand.
A market owner was recently arrested in Springfield for welfare fraud by letting customers trade SNAP benefits for cash. Springfield resident Julio C. Rodriguez, 55 years old, was arraigned on charges of larceny over $250, food stamp trafficking, and unlawful operation of a gaming device. Rodriguez was arrested when Massachusetts State Police executed a search warrant at his store, Bethania's Fish and Meat Market on Main Street. The case is being prosecuted by the Office of the Attorney General's Public Integrity Division. Rodriguez pleaded not guilty to the charges in District Court.
The Office of the Attorney General began investigating this case after receiving a referral from the United States Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General. Like many grocery stores across the state, Bethania's Market was authorized by the USDA to accept SNAP benefits for eligible items. Eligible items include most food, but do not include things like alcohol or tobacco products. It is against the law to exchange EBT benefits for cash.
Rodriguez allegedly engaged in a trafficking scheme to exchange SNAP benefits for cash. He would use the customer's SNAP card, and enter in fake food purchase amounts, and offer the customer half of the charged money in cash. For example, if the customer wanted $100 cash, then Rodriguez allegedly would charge their EBT card for $200 worth of fraudulent purchases, give the customer $100 in cash, and profit $100 from the fraudulent transaction.
In part, authorities were tipped off by the number of SNAP purchase over $75. Such purchases are suspicious and indicate there may be fraud involved. The North End store had been conducting almost $30,000 in EBT transactions per month. The majority of those sales were over $75, although it is unclear how many of those sales were indeed legitimate.
EBT fraud, in various forms, has been a problem for years. The Inspector General reported over 14,000 cases of food stamp fraud in the first ten months of 2013. In 2013, the State Auditor discovered that city welfare workers were taking blank EBT cards, and loading them with benefit amounts, to use for themselves. Some 30,000 blank EBT cards were unaccounted for. There are also numerous accounts of benefits for cash type fraud, as in the case above.
Last year, the owner of Lotto Luck in Quincy pleaded guilty to a similar racket, and was sentenced to two and a half years in jail, along with a charge of $285,000 in restitution. A manager of a Waltham convenience store also pleaded guilty to something similar, with a sentence of six months in jail, and $34,000 in restitution. In 2012, 21 people were charged withfraudulently selling their SNAP benefits.