The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is designed to alleviate the financial burden of needy households in having food.
The federal and state agencies that administer SNAP are constantly on the lookout for those who abuse the program. One such abuse is food stamp, or SNAP benefit, trafficking. Those who engage in it, whether retailers or recipients, divert dollars intended to help needy families have nutrition toward their own profits or things for which SNAP benefits are not meant.
If you are accused of trafficking in food stamps, or SNAP benefits, you’re subject to sanctions ranging from the administrative to the criminal. That means not only being declared ineligible, but the potential of jail time and agencies reaching into your property or other money to satisfy debts.
As a recipient, you engage in trafficking by selling your EBT benefits to someone else. Often, trafficking occurs when a retailer buys your benefits and then uses them to buy inventory for resell. With the cash, you buy items, such as alcohol, drugs, tobacco or other nonfood items, that you could not buy with the EBT card.
How does the federal or your state find out if you’re trafficking? Before EBT cards, food stamp recipients received coupons, or “stamps.” Paper coupons made it more challenging to track your purchases or catch phony records of purchases.
EBT cards work like debit or ATM cards. As you use it, the balance you have each month for eligible food purchases decrease. Since the EBT card is the method for paying for food with SNAP funds, unscrupulous types have a much more difficult time with counterfeit schemes.
More importantly, the EBT cards allow the federal or state agencies to track and record your use habits. Patterns discovered by or analyzed by computers may signal potential sale or otherwise misuse of the benefits. These alerts may trigger investigations and enforcement actions.
Trafficking is a crime that carries the prospect of imprisonment and fines. The levels depend on how much money is involved in the trafficking. If you’ve sold less than $100 dollars in benefits, you can be convicted of a misdemeanor and face up to one year and a $1,000 fine.
When the trafficking involves at least $100 but less than $5,000, it becomes a felony with a fine up to $10,000. You can get up to five years in prison on a first offense. For subsequent convictions in this value range, the minimum prison term is six months and the maximum is five years.
If you’re found guilty of trafficking more than $5,000 in benefits, the fine can reach $250,000 and your prison term could last up to 20 years.
Federal law also bars you from receiving SNAP benefits due to trafficking. This conduct is considered an “Intentional Program Violation (IPV).” Other IPVs may arise from providing false or misleading information on your application, such as when you falsify your identity to get multiple sets of identity or lie about your income, assets or members of your household.
A first IPV disqualifies you from SNAP benefits for twelve months. On a second IPV, you’re barred for 24 months. After a third IPV, you are permanently disqualified from receiving SNAP benefits. Remember, this is not the number of trafficking incidents. Any IPV is counted in determining your period of disqualification. If you have two IPVs for other reasons, just one instance of trafficking can bar you forever from SNAP benefits.
Also, if you’ve been convicted of trafficking and the value is at least $500, you are permanently disqualified. This is so even if it’s your first offense.
Generally, you are entitled to a hearing before the agency disqualifies you on the basis of an IPV. The agency must notify you in writing at least 30 days prior to the date that the disqualification hearing is scheduled. Within 90 days after notification to the household that the hearing has been scheduled, the agency must conduct it and make a decision. Contact one of our recipient trafficking attorneys who can help you prepare for the hearing and make sure your rights to a fair hearing are protected.
You will also owe the federal government for amounts you received due to trafficking. The state agency that administers your SNAP benefits undertakes efforts to collect these amounts from you. A civil claim for trafficking can be based on your admission to the activity or upon documentation and other evidence that you engaged in trafficking.
The collection starts with an initial written demand to you. Among other things, it will declare the amount you allegedly trafficked, the time period in which it allegedly occurred and basis for the claim that you engaged in trafficking. You have ninety (90) days from receiving the letter to request a fair hearing. If you get such a notice, one of our recipient trafficking lawyers can discuss the agency’s claim with you and determine how you can fight it or perhaps work out a settlement or compromise with the agency.
Should the claim go uncontested or be determined as valid, your state agency must take the greater of $20 or 20 percent of your monthly benefits per month. You can pay in installments or in a lump sum, including from your EBT card. Other collection methods include garnishment of your wages, offsets or deductions from your state tax refund or lottery winnings, or intercept of any unemployment benefits upon getting a court order to do so. The state agency may request a court order that you perform public service, with the value of it being applied to the claim against you.
If you find yourself accused of abusing the SNAP program by trafficking, one of our recipient trafficking attorneys are available to help you avoid or reduce the administrative, civil or even criminal consequences.
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