Your participation as a retailer in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allows you to serve low income customers. It also can sustain your business.
Having SNAP recipients carries important legal duties designed to avoid fraud in the food stamp program. These obligations run to you, your management and your employees. If your store gets caught in certain acts of fraud, you may receive a “trafficking Charge Letter.” Responding to it properly is critical.
Why Did I Get a Trafficking Charge Letter?
You traffick by purchasing EBT benefits from your customers. The recipients take the cash and keep it or buy things that they could not buy with an EBT card. Trafficking in SNAP benefits also includes buying inventory with a recipient’s EBT card then reselling it to other stores or customers. In some transactions, recipients offer to sell you the benefits in exchange for guns, rifles, bullets or illicit drugs. As a retailer, you can permanently lose your ability to receive EBT benefits for trafficking.
The Charge Letter comes when agents of the Food Nutrition Service or the state agency determine you have violated SNAP rules. Information on which the charges are based often comes via undercover purchasers. These customers approach your employees or you, posing as EBT customers to see if you or your employees break rules. They might offer to sell their benefits to you or see if you ask to buy them. Other evidence of your violations may come from EBT recipients who report violations or data obtained from EBT habits recorded and analyzed by computers.
Aside from trafficking, SNAP violations may include not posting prices, charging EBT customers differently (usually higher) than other customers, segregating EBT customers into designated checkout aisles and receiving EBT payments for nonfood items. Your customers cannot use SNAP benefits to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, other tobacco products, hot foods or meals at restaurants (other than restaurants in certain localities that offer reduced-price meals to certain low-income or homeless people).
How to Respond
A trafficking Charge Letter will notify you, in addition to the basis for the trafficking charge, that you might have the option of taking a civil monetary penalty in place of permanent disqualification from the SNAP program. You have ten (10) days from the date of delivery to request that FNS impose the less drastic alternative. If you don’t, you cannot ask FNS to give you’re the alternative to disqualification. Remember that trafficking normally results in a forever disqualification from participating in the SNAP program.
To determine your eligibility for the less drastic sanction, the agency will consider the extent you create or try to create an atmosphere or culture of obedience to SNAP rules in your store. The criteria addresses how you respond to violations in your store and what you do or have done to make sure employees follow the rules – before there is a violation. Our SNAP violation attorneys can help you marshal the necessary evidence that you meet the criteria for avoiding permanent disqualification.
Compliance Policy Standards
FNS wants to see written proof about your store policies for handling SNAP benefits. Do you fire employees who violate SNAP rules? How do you correct mistakes or violations? What are your store’s procedures for internally reviewing EBT transactions and food purchases by customers using EBT cards?
Your prior history of compliance is also relevant to whether you can avoid permanent disqualification. A first offense can persuade FNS to impose a monetary penalty rather than ban you from the SNAP program. If the owners knew about or benefited from a previous trafficking violation, you will not qualify for disqualification avoidance. Also, avoidance of disqualification won’t happen if weapons, ammunition or controlled substances were involved in the trading of EBT benefits or coupons. Extensive trafficking or incidents that involve significant amounts of money are more likely to draw disqualification.
To qualify for the penalty in lieu of disqualification, you must demonstrate that you adequately trained your staff about the SNAP regulations. This includes management and all employees whose duties or work will involve them with EBT cards or other SNAP benefits. The training must include a specific written instruction against obtaining EBT benefits or coupons for firearms, ammunition, or controlled substances.
Here, documentation of the training programs or education is critical. Your files must show that the employees were educated by you on SNAP rules before the violation. You must record the dates you hired employees and trained them on the SNAP program rules. As part of your training program, consider delivering a copy of publications or regulations from FNS to each new hire. Have each one sign an acknowledgment of receipt of the publications or other written materials.
Once you have replied to the Charge Letter, FNS will decide whether to go through with the permanent disqualification or impose the monetary fine instead. If FNS opts for the former, your disqualification will take effect immediately. As a result, you can’t participate in SNAP even if you’re challenging it through administrative or judicial review. Should either forum yield a reversal of the disqualification, FNS won’t reimburse you for the sales during the review period.
By contrast, if you’re eligible for a civil monetary penalty and you challenge the accusation of trafficking, you may receive EBT funds for your customers’ purchases until the reviews are complete.
Beyond the Charge Letter
You have ten (10) days after FNS delivers its written decision to ask for an administrative review. An FNS reviewer will determine whether to uphold the action or reverse it.
If the designated reviewer of FNS agrees that you should be disqualified or should face other penalties for trafficking, your next step is judicial review. You must ask for it by filing a lawsuit in state court or federal district court within thirty (30) days after service of the reviewer’s decision on you. Our attorneys can assist you in properly starting the lawsuit and preparing for the trial.
Getting a Charge Letter for trafficking is a very serious threat to your business. The deadlines to take action run quickly and require prompt and decisive action on your part. Contact our SNAP attorneys for guidance through the process.
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