October 2, 2012 10:12:15 AM
TUPELO -- State officials say 1,705 people in Mississippi were disqualified last budget year from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for making false claims and improperly taking more than $2.7 million in benefits.
The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reports that hundreds more people routinely report benefits cards lost or stolen, which the federal government cites as a potential sign of fraud.
"There are many legitimate reasons for replacing cards and the vast majority of recipients follow the rules," said U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon in a news release. "But we are concerned that a few bad actors are using replacement cards to exchange SNAP benefits for cash, commonly referred to as trafficking."
Mississippi enrollment in SNAP is 698,279, or 23 percent of the state's population. The numbers have more than doubled from the start of the century, when 10 percent of Mississippians, or 276,074 residents, received food stamps.
The Mississippi Department of Human Services first began tracking multiple replacement card requests during the budget year that ran from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012, said agency spokeswoman Julia Bryan.
DHS said 263 households reported cards missing five or more times. The highest number of replacements requested by a single cardholder was 17.
For comparison, Renasant Bank spokesman John Oxford said his company typically issues replacement debit cards to 10 percent of its cardholders annually but almost never issues more than one in a single year.
"Twice is an anomaly," Oxford said. "Five or six times is almost unheard of. It would be very, very rare."
Although DHS has a fraud investigations office that looks into hundreds of cases of potential misconduct each year, multiple card requests don't automatically trigger an investigation. Instead, the agency sends each household a notice warning them of the penalties for fraud, Bryan said. Federal regulations limit contact between state agencies and SNAP recipients, according to Concannon, who this year proposed new regulations, including one that would allow states to make replacement card-seekers contact the agency after the fourth request in a year.
Today, though, DHS doesn't know how many SNAP recipients legitimately lose their cards versus those who sell them.
"The way it is now, we can't require them to come in and let us quiz them about why they lost their card," said David Noble, DHS director of state operations.
Repeat card-losers include elderly people, those with mental issues or families who move multiple times in a year, said DHS economic assistance director Cathy Sykes. She said she's aware some beneficiaries cheat the system.
"They'll sell the card for $100 and they have, maybe, $200 on the card," Sykes said. "Then they immediately report the card stolen and get the card disactivated."
The person who sold the card then gets a new one with the remaining $200 balance transferred to it while pocketing the $100 swindled from the buyer. The buyer loses money with no way to legally reclaim it since it's unlawful to purchase a benefits card in the first place.
Other times, beneficiaries sell the cards and wait a few days to report it lost to give the buyer time to use them. Although SNAP recipients lose the balance on those cards, they get cash to purchase items they otherwise can't get using an electronic benefits transfer card.
Federal law restricts EBT card purchases to household food items. A card cannot be used to get alcohol, tobacco, medicine, hot foods or nonfood items like soap, light bulbs, diapers, pet food, clothes or school supplies.