NAPLES — Food stamp fraud is on the rise, and state officials say the number of cases in Florida is tied to the increased number of people receiving public assistance.
The state's Department of Children and Families, which administers the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), referred 40,194 cases of possible food stamp fraud to the Division of Public Assistance Fraud in 2011.
That's up from 2007 when the division received 23,348 referrals.
"In the past three to four years, the participation in the SNAP program has increased over 100 percent," said Alexis Lambert, spokeswoman for the state's Division of Public Assistance Fraud. "This has resulted in a corresponding increase for fraud referrals for investigation."
But it's not just statewide where the level of reported fraud has increased. Statistics provided by agencies in Collier and Lee counties appear to mirror the statewide trend.
The Collier County Sheriff's Office had eight reports of food stamp fraud in the last five years, according to documents provided in response to a Daily News public records request. Five of the eight were reported in 2011.
The details vary, but each follows a similar story line: each of the eight reports ends with an unauthorized use of a SNAP card.
Similar data on food stamp fraud wasn't available from the Lee County Sheriff's Office.
However, the Lee County Clerk of Courts office found 21 cases in the last five years in which residents were charged with some form of public assistance fraud. There were 14 cases of public assistance fraud in Collier County in that same time frame, according to the Collier County Clerk of Courts office.
While the reports filed with law enforcement agencies offer a look at recipients whose card may have been stolen, the cases on file with the Clerks of Courts offices show people who have been charged with anything from an unauthorized use to receiving unauthorized public assistance.
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The state law — Florida statute 414.39 — pertains to all public assistance programs, including SNAP and Medicaid.
Matt Dempsey, the public benefit integrity director for the Department of Children and Families, said the agency is "legally responsible and spiritually committed to prevent, detect and recover from fraud."
Determining fraud isn't easy, though.
"There are 31 flavors of fraud," Dempsey said.
Dempsey said his agency is looking to stamp out fraud through new identification technology. While the current system involves manually identifying whether someone is eligible for public assistance, it's not a uniform system.
"We wanted clarity, efficiency and ease," he said.
While new technology may make it easier to find an overpayment or a fraudulent use of the system, Dempsey said, case processors still are considered to be on the front line whenever there's questionable information.
"Our capacity has gone up ... the number of (people) receiving has gone up," he said. "And we are more aggressively pursuing efficiencies."
But the Department of Children and Families only targets clients or applicants who "intentionally, wrongfully fill out an application."
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When fraud occurs on the retailer's end, it's up to federal agencies to investigate.
About 231,000 retailers nationwide are approved to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food stamp program, and each year the USDA expels roughly 900 retailers from the program.
The reason is almost always food stamp trafficking. In that scheme, retailers encourage food stamp recipients to trade their benefits for cash or ineligible merchandise — usually alcohol or tobacco — at an exchange rate favoring the store.
"As people become less employed or unemployed completely, some might turn to more creative methods to get the things they want or need," said John Knowles, spokesman for Ave Maria School of Law. "Whatever is going on, people are desperate for cash."
The scheme works like this: Recipients swipe their card and punch in their PIN number, just like with a debit card. The electronic data is then sent to the government or bank administering the program.
The merchant takes full payment for the transaction's stated price and pockets the difference, which can be as much as $50,000 a month, according to the 2009 indictment of a South Florida ring.
Nine Southwest Florida retailers have been permanently disqualified for participating in the USDA's food stamp program.
Three of those — Golden Bakery, 11689 Collier Blvd.; JLD Mini Market, South Third Street, Unit B, Immokalee; and Universal Market, 401-1 W. Delaware Ave., Immokalee — are in Collier County, while the remainder of the stores are in Fort Myers.
Once a retailer is disqualified from a program, it is permanently barred from participating in the SNAP program.Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said cashiers are trained to accept food stamp cards, but because the cards are processed as PIN-based transactions, the store doesn't have a way to detect fraud.
Even so, stores like Publix take steps to ensure SNAP cards aren't used for ineligible items.
Patten said the Publix register system is programmed "to only accept EBT (electronic benefit transfer) payment for qualified items."
That means while the company can't determine whether someone is fraudulently receiving SNAP, merchants have control over what is purchased with the cards.
__ Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this report.
__ Connect with reporter Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster at www.naplesnews.com/staff/jenna-buzzacco.