Food stamp fraud is a growing problem and New York is becoming more aggressive in chasing down fraud in the system. They have investigators looking for fraud at retail establishment throughout Suffolk County. Those investigators are combing through applications looking for irregularities. If you have been suspected or charged with food stamp fraud in Suffolk County, it’s important that you immediately protect your rights.
What is Food Stamp Fraud?
Food stamp fraud is a multi-faceted offense that can pertain to SNAP beneficiaries and retailers alike. Fraud entails getting benefits when you aren’t entitled to them, using them inappropriately, or accepting them inappropriately. It also requires that deception of some sort is involved. This can mean lying on the application forms or lying during an interview. It can mean concealing pertinent facts.
The largest segment of food stamp fraud is the selling or trading of food stamp benefits for cash, drugs, alcohol, or weapons. It usually involves retailers who are improperly documenting transactions so that people get some cash, sometimes as low as 50 cents per dollar, for their food stamp benefits. This is illegal for the both the beneficiary and the retail store.
Beneficiary food stamp fraud is the second largest segment and involves misstating income or household size on the application. By misstating pertinent information, people receive food stamps that they otherwise are not entitled to.
Penalties for Food Stamp Fraud
The penalty levels are different between beneficiary food stamp fraud and retailer food stamp fraud. These penalties are governed by USDA policy and state laws.
Beneficiary SNAP fraud penalties can range from disqualification from the SNAP program and a requirement to pay back all illegally obtained benefits to criminal prosecution that can lead to fines and jail time. Disqualifications can be either temporary or permanent. If criminally prosecuted, jail sentences could range up to 10 years.
Retail SNAP fraud penalties have progressive penalties based on the severity of the offense and if criminally prosecuted. Disqualification from the program can severely harm any retail establishment that depends on food stamp revenue.
1. Civil Fine and Reimbursement
2. Temporary Disqualification ranging from 6 months to 1 year
3. Permanent Disqualification
4. Criminal Prosecution with jail and fines
The New York Attorney General takes criminal prosecution seriously. In 2015, two convenience store owners in Suffolk County were convicted of food stamp fraud and put in jail with sentences ranging up to 7 years.
How is Food Stamp Fraud Investigated?
A food stamp fraud investigation usually starts with a tip called into the state or local fraud hotline. The hotline collects the information from the tip and sends it on to investigators. State investigators will investigate the information provided and do one of three things.
1. Close the investigation
2. Refer the case to the local office
3. Further investigate the offense for possible charges.
In 2015, the NY Office of Welfare Inspector General processed 437 complaints alleging welfare fraud, including TANF and SNAP(Food Stamps) fraud. 145 cases were closed, 203 cases were referred to local offices, and 89 were subject to further investigation by teams of investigators. It should be noted that fraud investigations can also be originated in local offices. One important takeaway from this information is that just because someone is investigated for food stamp fraud, it doesn’t mean they will be criminally prosecuted for it. They may just be subject to civil sanctions or the investigation may simply be dropped.
Food Stamp Fraud Potential Defenses
Food stamp fraud is usually a black and white issue. Either fraud was committed or it wasn’t. Because these cases are usually cut and dried, it’s important to involve criminal defense lawyers as early as possible in the process to keep the investigations from leading to erroneous charges. Once the case has gone to the Suffolk County court system, defense becomes more difficult.
One of the best defenses for food stamp fraud is to challenge the evidence collected against the defendant. If the evidence was improperly collected or was just plain wrong, then no law was broken and there is no crime. Charges will need to be dropped. An attorney can get access to all of the investigation documents and see where there are problems or potential issues in the evidence collected.
Fraud investigations often start with tips. Sometimes these tips are not correct so an effective defense technique involves getting these tips expunged from the record. If these tips form the backbone and substance of the investigation, then this can result in the charges being dropped.
Another potential defense is that there are mitigating circumstances. Maybe the evidence doesn’t show the whole picture. It’s also possible that the recipient thought they were telling the truth and had no intention to deceive. Without intentionally trying to hide facts, there is no fraud. For example, if an employee is committing fraud and the owner isn’t aware of this, there are mitigating circumstances.
While these are all suitable defenses, the best defense against food stamp fraud cases is to deal with the investigation as soon as possible. The letter that says that you are under investigation means that evidence is being gathered against you and that now is the time to start defending yourself against the fraud. An attorney can protect your rights and ensure that the investigation is properly conducted without irregularities.
Food stamp fraud is a serious offense that can hurt you financially or land you in jail. With the right kind of defense, the effects can be mitigated. An attorney can protect your rights if you are suspected of food stamp fraud here in Suffolk County.
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