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Last Updated on: 28th July 2023, 07:21 pm
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides crucial food assistance to millions of low-income Americans. But operating a retail business that accepts SNAP benefits comes with serious responsibilities and compliance rules. Even inadvertent violations can trigger severe fines or disqualification from program participation. If you are investigated or charged with SNAP fraud, working with an experienced legal advisor is essential to avoid devastating consequences. Here is what retailers need to know about potential violations and defender their rights.
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) closely monitors EBT transactions for any indications of abuse or program violations. Unfortunately, even unintentional minor paperwork errors or staff mistakes can lead to accusations. Common issues that raise red flags include:
Perhaps the most serious violation is exchanging cash for EBT benefits, which completely undermines the program. Even unproven allegations can lead to permanent disqualification. Strongly advise staff to refuse such transactions.
Overcharging on Eligible Items
Retailers must adhere to established price lists for essential grocery items that SNAP covers. Ringing up higher prices illegally inflates reimbursements.
Only designated products like bread, fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy are eligible for SNAP. Make sure cashiers never allow purchases of cigarettes, alcohol, hot foods, or pet food.
Incentives for SNAP Shoppers
Offering special discounts, bonus items, or cash rewards only to SNAP customers is prohibited. Incentives and promotions must be made available to all.
Inaccurate Reimbursement Claims
Any errors on monthly SNAP reimbursement requests, whether intentional or not, may be deemed fraudulent. Keep meticulous records and double check all reports.
Accepting Expired EBT Cards
Always check that SNAP cards swiped are unexpired. Running expired cards results in disallowed charges that authorities may construe as deceptive.
Staying on top of compliance depends on implementing a rigorous training program for cashiers and anyone managing SNAP transactions. Carelessness could put your business’s SNAP eligibility in jeopardy.
If investigators allege your business committed SNAP violations, you could be facing substantial financial penalties including permanent disqualification, fines of up to $100,000 per violation, and even potential criminal prosecution. The consequences for your livelihood make experienced legal help essential. Look for these credentials and expertise in any advisor:
Experience with Retailer SNAP Defense
Make sure your advisor has specific background representing retailers accused of SNAP violations, not just generic white collar defense expertise. Ask for case examples.
Mastery of SNAP Rules
An effective advocate must demonstrate deep knowledge of every facet of SNAP retailer rules, including detailed compliance guidance documents. Citing the precise rules is key to rebutting allegations.
Relationships With Investigators
Your advisor should have existing contacts within the FNS and USDA offices that conduct retailer investigations. Those connections could help resolve cases more favorably.
If settlement talks fail, you want an advisor ready to aggressively dispute violations through litigation. Confirm their ability to demand proof and assemble convincing defenses.
Even minor violations can lead to permanently blocked participation, so skilled negotiators are vital to securing lesser sanctions. Verify their record of minimizing penalties.
Choosing the right legal representative as soon as allegations arise is crucial. Look for someone who knows SNAP rules inside and out and will fight aggressively to protect your business.
If your business is suspected of SNAP violations, understanding the audit and enforcement process allows you to coordinate an effective response with legal counsel. While procedures vary, a typical sequence is:
The FNS sends a letter stating they will perform a comprehensive SNAP compliance audit examining all electronic benefits (EBT) transactions for a period, usually the last 3 years.
Investigators then request you produce EBT transaction records, employee training materials, inventory purchase invoices, or any other items related to SNAP. Comply fully within deadlines.
Auditors visit your premises and observe operations looking for program violations. They may interview staff on EBT policies and procedures. Answer questions transparently.
You will receive formal written conclusions detailing any identified compliance shortcomings, suspected program violations, and proposed sanctions.
Promptly consult legal counsel on strategies for settlement negotiations to contest unfounded allegations and, if violations did occur, mitigate penalties.
If talks fail, the agency will impose final civil fines, SNAP disqualification periods, or referrals for criminal charges. Only litigation can further contest.
Do not go through this process alone. Experienced SNAP compliance lawyers can guide you through responding to audit inquiries, asserting your rights, and negotiating least-damaging penalties if violations surface. But the time to act is as soon as you receive an audit notice before mistakes are compounded.
Two of the most serious SNAP retailer violations – exchanging EBT benefits for cash (trafficking) and intentionally submitting false information on reimbursement claims – can lead to permanent disqualification, devastating fines, and potential criminal prosecution. Here are proactive defense strategies if accused:
If auditors allege suspicious patterns like many even-dollar SNAP transactions, argue such patterns alone are not definitive proof of trafficking. Demand concrete evidence like witness statements or surveillance footage definitively documenting improper transactions.
If violations like trafficking did occur, demonstrate they were the work of a single rogue cashier circumventing policies. Outline training provided and monitoring controls to show the business acted properly. The actions of a single employee should not implicate the entire business.
Owners and managers often are unaware of violations by staff. Show you had no involvement in or profit from any wrongdoing. Trafficking without owner knowledge merits lesser sanctions.
If minor violations happened, detail strengthened training, monitoring, and inventory controls implemented to prevent future occurrences. Self-policing should warrant lesser penalties.
For inaccurate SNAP reimbursement claims, demonstrate they stemmed from unintentional clerical mistakes, not deliberate deception aimed at overpayment. This negates intent requirements.
Experienced SNAP defense lawyers recognize multiple avenues to defeat trafficking and false claim allegations or limit consequences. But you must act quickly and decisively when violations are suspected.
While any SNAP violation is troubling, allegations of trafficking EBT benefits for cash or falsifying reimbursement invoices are by far the most severe. If substantial evidence supports those charges, you may face:
Permanent SNAP Disqualification
For serious violations, the agency can impose a permanent ban prohibiting ever accepting SNAP benefits again. This is effectively a death sentence for many retailers.
Civil Fines Up to $100,000 Per Violation
Each proven trafficking transaction or false reimbursement claim can justify fines up to $100,000. Just a handful of violations may result in total fines over $1 million.
If FNS believes trafficking yielded substantial illegal profits, they may seize those assets. You could lose business bank accounts, property, or other valuables.
SNAP fraud over $5,000 is a federal felony under SNAP statute and money laundering laws. You may face over 20 years in prison if convicted.
Even lesser violations can lead to multi-year SNAP disqualification and major fines threatening your business’s survival. This underscores the importance of an aggressive legal defense.
From the moment you receive notice of a pending SNAP audit or investigation, any missteps could compound legal jeopardy. Experienced SNAP compliance lawyers stress avoiding these common mistakes:
Ignoring Audit Requests
Never disregard audit notices or subpoenas for documents. Prompt cooperation is essential, even if allegations seem unwarranted. Noncompliance will be treated as an admission of guilt.
Do not hide, underreport, or destroy any records that could demonstrate program violations. Honesty is essential, as dishonesty will only increase penalties.
Failing to Train Employees
If ignorant employees commit violations, lack of training will hurt any defense. Immediately expand training on proper EBT policies so violations do not recur.
Allowing Unauthorized Purchases
Carefully monitor all EBT at checkout to prevent transactions involving alcohol, tobacco, hot foods, etc. These demonstrate lack of control.
Not Consulting an Attorney
Never submit to investigator interviews or negotiate penalties without an experienced SNAP compliance lawyer’s guidance. Their expertise is indispensable.
Regulators will be less likely to pursue the harshest sanctions if you demonstrate full transparency, accountability, and willingness to prevent future violations. But you still need an advocate protecting your interests.
If you have received notice of a pending SNAP audit or investigation, time is of the essence in building your defense. To protect yourself or your business, take these steps right away:
Gather Relevant Records
Pull together EBT data, inventory invoices, training logs, or anything related to SNAP compliance. This aids any negotiations.
Consult an Attorney
Immediately contact an experienced SNAP defense lawyer to protect your rights. Follow their guidance throughout the audit.
Cooperate Fully with Investigators
Answer all inquiries promptly and honestly. But have counsel review responses first. Never refuse to provide requested documents.
Increase Staff Training
Enhance employee training and monitoring procedures on EBT policies to remedy any weaknesses. Document improvements made.
Develop a Legal Strategy
Work closely with your attorney to identify potential defenses, witnesses, or other factors that may defeat or mitigate allegations of violations.
With experienced legal help from the outset, retailers can resolve SNAP audits while minimizing damage to their business. But waiting to seek counsel only reduces your options. Protect your interests now.
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