More than 30 food stamp recipients in Louisiana who attempted to misuse their benefits during a multi-state outage of the system last year have been disqualified from the program, according to the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services.
In mid-October, a vendor glitch resulted in a 17-state outage of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients’ SNAP cards. With no limit showing up on SNAP cards, some recipients abused the outage by making purchases far in excess of their entitlement.
“This is a unique type of fraud compared to the cases we usually encounter,” DCFS Secretary Suzy Sonnier said in a statement Monday.
According to the DCFS, right after the October 12 outage, the department began investigating transactions made by 12,000 people and found that some were made by people who were no longer eligible for the program and others who did not have enough benefits to make the purchases they made, leaving retailers on the hook for those transactions.
The DCFS’ fraud team went on to investigate the 500 “most egregious transgressors” who tried to spend $315,386 total funds they did not have in benefits in transactions ranging from $300 – $2,000. The fraud unit sent letters and questionnaires to the 500. They received 113 responses and scheduled 109 interviews by February 20th.
“Responses to the disqualification letters have ranged from admitting to committing the fraudulent transactions, to declaring no knowledge of the transactions, and to stating that the retailer told the clients it was ‘okay’ to perform the transaction be cause ‘the government was shut down,’” said Sonnier. “Regardless of circumstances, knowingly attempting to spend more than the balance on your card or allowing others to do so is grounds for disqualification.”
In that vein, the department has already started the process for disqualifying 31 SNAP beneficiaries, six of whom already waived their rights to a hearing. Federal guidelines require first-time SNAP abusers to be disqualified for a year, while second-time abusers are suspended for two years. Three-time abusers permanently disqualified from the program.
Louisiana’s outage made national headlines when the glitch resulted in a massive shopping spree at Wal-Mart stores in the state, resulting in police officers having to respond to at least two stores.
In addition to the fraud unit’s investigations the department has shared its information with other law enforcement officials and district attorneys general in the state to look into whether to file criminal charges.
“Several District Attorneys have requested more specific information in order to potentially initiate criminal investigations in their jurisdictions,” said Sonnier. “DCFS has provided that data and will continue to assist all state and local law enforcement officials who are standing with us as we attack fraud within public assistance programs.”
Under Louisiana state law, people who fail to report SNAP abuse are subject to up to $5,000 in fines and those convicted of unauthorized SNAP use are subject to punishments ranging from $5,000 and/or six months in prison to $1 million and/or up to ten years in prison.