Lauren Williams, Senior Staff Writer

Federal agents, state departments and local police are working together to combat the issue of food stamp fraud in Ohio.

The Ohio Department of Public Safety began food stamp fraud investigations after recipients of federal assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) sold their benefit cards for money.

According to the Ohio Investigative Unit, since Jan. 9 five people have been indicted, two charged, and one sentenced for crimes related to illegally selling food stamps.

The food assistance funds lost to food stamp fraud constitute less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total $3 billion allocated to Ohio families, according to Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services (ODJFS) spokesperson Benjamin Johnson.

“I caution people to remember that 40 percent of food assistance recipients are children, and great numbers of [recipients] are retired or disabled,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, 1 in 4 recipients of Ohio food assistance belong to households with at least one working adult, and 75 percent receive some form of income.

Johnson said he is working closely with investigators to ensure the money is going to families who are facing difficult times and are using the assistance as intended.

“These are people who need help putting food on the table and keeping their children fed and healthy,” Johnson said.

The SNAP benefit card works similarly to a debit card, according to Ohio Office of Family Assistance representative Marian Gray.

The monthly allotment of food assistance is deposited into the recipient’s account, and a required PIN number accesses the funds at the grocery store.

The process for receiving a replacement SNAP card is a phone call requesting a reissue of the card.

The excessive reissue of SNAP cards is one indicator of possible fraud, Johnson said.

Butler County is the only county in Ohio that has set up a squad unit that specifically investigates food stamp fraud.

Since July 2012, this unit has saved Butler County nearly $200,000.

This number is calculated by how much assistance the individuals would have received if the money was actually used toward food products, Johnson said.

Though the Ohio Investigative Unit does pay attention to fraudulent card replacements, police officers and federal agents mainly concentrate on unscrupulous authorized retailers, according to Cincinnati District Agent-in-Charge Brent Devery.

For example, a typical case of food stamp fraud is the illegal exchange of a food assistance card for cash worth half the dollar amount of the card.

Devery said this is a fantastic initiative by the Butler County squad unit.

“Butler County is very proactive, and they always have been, and we enjoy working with them on this,” Devery said.

Food stamp trafficking is a fifth-degree felony in Ohio. Individuals charged with food stamp fraud may receive up to a $250,000 fine, 20 years in prison, and a lifetime ban from the SNAP program, Johnson said.

Miami junior Alyssa Reck and her family donate to food banks and charities each year to help those struggling to get back on their feet.

Reck said she knows the importance of feeding those who are hungry, and does not want the acquisition of funds for programs such as SNAP to be reduced due to food stamp fraud.

“People are living in poverty,” Reck said. “The more you cut back, you’re restricting them.”

Reck said she sometimes feels hesitant to donate her money when people abuse the benefits and services they receive.

“Taxpayers should know where their money is going, and they should know that the people receiving it actually need it,” Reck said.