July 24, 2016

Intermittent clouds

Data indicates food stamp fraud down from 2012

Counties statewide saw less food stamp fraud last year than in 2012, according to Ohio data showing fewer food stamp debit cards needed replacing in 2013.

“Historically, some people on food stamps would sell their stamps for drugs, and then claim they lost them and ask for replacements,” said Mead Wilkins, director of Medina County Job and Family Services. “Replacement had always been a code word for fraud.”

The state reported 327,908 electronic benefit cards needed replacing last year — down 8 percent from 2012. Over that time, the number of Ohioans on food stamps was up about 1 percent to 1,824,675.

Wilkins said county-specific data weren’t available, but the statewide data mean fewer cards were being stolen, lost and used fraudulently.

Wilkins said it’s harder to defraud the system since electronic debit cards began replacing paper food stamps about a decade ago.

Like bank debit cards, each card bears its user’s name and requires a personal identification number to activate.

“We know you’re using it or not using it because it’s all digital,” he said. “So you can’t ask for a new one if there’s activity on your old one, unless it’s been lost or stolen — in which case the old one gets deactivated.

“We know they do get traded, but you don’t get a replacement card.”

In order to qualify for food stamps, a household of four must make less than $29,965.

State and federal agencies pledged to eliminate food stamp fraud entirely by more closely monitoring card replacement requests, especially when they are getting repeated requests.

Authorities say stricter federal rules on replacement cards have helped identify misuse as well as those who are having problems managing their accounts.

“Counties are doing a great job investigating the households that (Ohio) flags,” said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. “That casework has likely contributed to the reduction in replacement cards.”

People lose their cards for a variety of reasons — theft, falling out of purses or wallets, losing their wallets and purses. Sometimes they get damaged and are inoperable.

Johnson said in 90 percent of the cases flagged, county investigators don’t find any fraudulent activity.

But authorities are vigilant for suspicious activity at retailers and sometimes find crime suspects carrying food stamp cards that don’t belong to them. Dayton police, for example, last year said they arrested a burglary suspect with $100 he said he got from selling his girlfriend’s food stamp card that carried $243 in benefits. Police said the man told them he needed cash for heroin.

The Ohio Investigative Unit has found clerks and other store employees engaging in illegal trafficking, and in possession of other people’s food stamp cards.

“That’s common,” said Harold Torrens, the unit’s Cincinnati district agent in charge. “We’ll find multiple cards at the retailer or home or wherever we do a search warrant.”

Some benefit-trafficking operations are big and sophisticated, investigators say.

“The victims are taxpayers who are funding this program with taxpayer dollars,” Torrens said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Nick Glunt at (330) 721-4048 or nglunt@medina-gazette.com.

Nick Glunt About Nick Glunt

Nick Glunt primarily covers courts and crime in Medina County. He served The Gazette from September 2012 to December 2015. Contact him at (330) 721-4048 or via email at nglunt@medina-gazette.com.