Federal Food Stamp Crimes
If you’ve been following the news these days then you’re aware that the new administration in Washington, D.C. has promised to prosecute and eliminate fraud in federal programs. One of these “entitlement” programs currently being scrutinized is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the “food stamp” program.
Is snap In Trouble?
The program now known as snap has existed in one form or another since the late 1930s. Its purpose is to provide financial assistance to individuals and families unable to purchase food. This program has not been without controversies over its lifespan. Among the allegations surrounding it is that it is easy to defraud. While SNAP remains a fairly healthy program and the number of true fraud cases are in decline, it’s not difficult to fall afoul of SNAP regulations. If you need help with federal appeals, our federal appeals lawyers can assist with this as well.
SNAP is intended to provide a limited amount of goods to eligible households. Under the restrictions of this program, both program applicants and vendors who participate in it must adhere to certain requirements. If violations are proven in both cases, penalties include:
- permanent disqualification from the SNAP program
- jail terms
A SNAP recipient is considered guilty of fraud if he or she:
- lies on application forms
- exchanges SNAP benefits for cash
- makes purchases with SNAP that they aren’t entitled to
- collects more SNAP benefits then they are entitled to
A vendor participating in the SNAP program is guilty of participating in SNAP fraud if he or she:
- exchanges cash for SNAP benefits
- accepts SNAP benefits for forbidden goods
- allows SNAP holders to purchase more goods than they are entitled to
- lies on or deliberately misfiles paperwork
A study conducted in 2013 by the federal General Accounting Office (GAO) showed that true SNAP fraud was relatively rare, occurring with only four percent of program participants. That figure has continued to decline with stricter enforcement. The GAO’s study also showed that many of those charged with fraud weren’t hardened criminals, but individuals trying to “bend” SNAP’s stricter requirements. This “bending” included making purchases not allowed by SNAP (like alcohol or gasoline) or exchanging SNAP benefits for their cash equivalent.
Can You Be Caught In A SNAP Snare?
It’s difficult to feel sorry for individuals who find ways to defraud programs for the disadvantaged on purpose. But SNAP is a complex program with many restrictions. Some of these have changed or been amended over time, as well. Is it possible to accidentally commit fraudulent errors while participating in this program? There are several ways in which this can happen.
1. The recipient accidentally receives more benefit than they are entitled to.
The federal SNAP program is administered on a state level. But farming claims out doesn’t mean that accidents don’t happen. Adjustments are occasionally made to SNAP applications that result in larger benefits than originally anticipated. But these adjustments are (or should be) accompanied by documentation explaining any benefit adjustments.
If a recipient is aware that an error of this nature has been made and uses the benefits anyway, they are generally not penalized. However, the erring agency retains the right to collect what it calls “overages” from future payments until the overage is gone.
2. The recipient makes an “honest mistake” while applying for SNAP that results in more benefits then they are entitled to.
These are tedious, complicated forms to fill out. Accidents happen. Recipients may be expected to fill out amended forms when this occurs. If benefits have been issued and used before this error is caught, recipients should expect “overages” to be deducted.
3. While appealing a rejected SNAP application, the applicant begins receiving SNAP benefits.
If the recipient loses the appeal, he or she may be considered financially liable for any used SNAP benefits. It’s also possible that he or she may be charged “overage” for any benefits issued before a SNAP appeal is officially won.
Administering state agencies have some leeway with “unintentional” violations like these. Under certain conditions such as:
- collecting “overages” would cost the recipient extreme economic distress
- collecting an “overage” is more expensive than it’s worth
- more than 12 months passed before the agency caught its error
recipients often aren’t charged for outstanding amounts. However, if the administering agency determines that an applicant or recipient has intentionally violated the requirements of the SNAP program, the consequences are far more severe. Intentional SNAP violations are usually determined to have occurred when:
- an applicant deliberately lies on an application
- an applicant deliberately withholds information on an application
- an applicant has committed previous acts that they know would make them ineligible for SNAP
Because the consequences of a charged intentional SNAP violation are potentially far more serious than an unintentional one, legal consul is recommended in such cases.
The best way for both potential recipients and vendors to avoid problems with SNAP is to fully understand the program and how it works before committing to it. Neither party should agree to exchange benefits for money, or to sell or purchase items not permitted by the program. Both recipients and vendors should complete and report any paperwork issues promptly. Any changes that would affect program participation should be reported promptly as well. And both recipients and vendors should report any abuses of the SNAP program that they become aware of, and cooperate with authorities fully. And when SNAP legal trouble can’t be avoided, lawyers experienced in dealing with this program can be invaluable. Such attorneys can:
- help get fines reduced
- help to avoid or lessen jail time
- help to have canceled benefits restored
- advise clients in order to avoid future problems
SNAP has helped millions of people to survive hard times, and it’s a program well worth preserving. Making sure that its participants adhere to its rules is one sure way to help to preserve it for years to come.