Caught on Tape: EBT Fraud and Welfare Abuse in Georgia

A new report by the Georgia Study Committee on Welfare Fraud formed by the state’s House of Representatives, has found that the state is not immune to some alarming issues in their welfare system.

“The committee’s findings raised serious concern over the amount of waste and fraud in Georgia’s welfare program,” which include the state’s food stamp program.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 18: People walk past an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) station, more commonly known as Food Stamps, in the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square on September 18, 2013 in New York City. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, 20% of American adults struggled to buy enough food at some point in the last year. The rate of hungry people in America has gone relatively unchanged since 2008, suggesting the economic recovery since the 2008 recession may be disproportionately affecting the wealthy. More than 50 of GrowNYC's Greenmarket's now accept EBT; over $800,000 in sales were complete with EBT payment at the Greenmarket's in 2012. GrowNYC is also currently offering a program known as Health Bucks: for ever $5 spent using EBT at a Greenmarket, GrowNYC provides an additional $2, which can be spent specifically on fresh fruits and vegetables. Credit: Getty Images
People walk past an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) station, more commonly known as Food Stamps, in the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square on September 18, 2013 in New York City. Credit: Getty Images

And a recent report from Channel 11 in Atlanta showcased on screen just how easy it is to buy and sell the EBT cards that food stamp recipients use.

Their investigation uncovered several fraudsters trying to sell their EBT cards for cash, something that is illegal, but all too common in food stamp programs across the country. Channel 11 caught one man asking for $60 in cash for his EBT card.

“Do you wanna give me 60 bucks cash?” asked one man looking to sell an EBT card.

“And then how much food would I get out of there?” replied Jeremy. He’s working with us.

“You’d get 99 bucks in food,” the man said.

Then Channel 11’s undercover operative asked:

“Do you know if this illegal or not?” asked Jeremy.

“I don’t know,” the man replied. “Why — are you a cop?”

He decided it was not a good idea to stick around, and began to walk away.

“I ain’t no cop — but I do have to tell you something. Where are you going? You don’t have to run, man. I just want to get your story.”

Another man the investigation caught used Craigslist to place an ad just like this: “Selling my $500 EBT card for $350 cash” or “You need groceries, I need money. $300 card for sale – cash only.”

That’s taxpayer money being wasted, and while in recent years Georgia has made improvements to reduce fraud, Rep. David Clark, chairman of the committee agrees there’s more that needs to be done to protect resources for those in need.

“As public servants of the people, it’s our job to do what we can for those in need, but we must do better at verifying eligibility and closing loopholes that fraudsters are using that take straight from the hands of those who are struggling,” he said.

And as the committee found, they’re not just taking from those in Georgia, they’re taking from those in several states – and receiving benefits in more than one location. In the committee’s report, they reference a pilot program called the National Accuracy Clearinghouse, which found that at least 10,000 of the state’s food stamp recipients were receiving benefits in multiple states.

The Georgia Study Committee on Welfare Fraud was told that clearing them from the rolls would save “$180,000 a month for taxpayers.”

The Committee was also concerned to hear that other states have found that EBT benefits cards are regularly being used “in the Florida area near Disney World, as well as in-state at strip clubs and casinos, and also as currency as part of the drug trade.”

Channel 11’s investigation encountered this very issue of unaccountable out-of-state spending for Georgia’s EBT program:

“I got card,” Darius said.

“That says Georgia EBT,” said Jeremy.

“Yeah, it still works here,” Darius replied.

“Here,” in this case, is Colorado. Darius gets his EBT sent to him from Georgia and uses it in Colorado.

Georgia is also facing a serious compliance problem.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more widely known as food stamps, has yearly performance reviews of state administration, measuring performance of the “quality” and “timeliness” of cases. Quality being whether a random sample of cases are receiving the correct amount of benefits, which determines the state’s “error rate”. A 5 percent error rate receives a warning letter from the federal government, and Georgia was out of compliance in both fiscal years 2013 and 2014, with 5.11 percent and 6.49 percent error rates, respectively.

Timeliness is the number of days taken to process a case, 30 for standard cases and 5 for expedited cases. The standard for SNAP timelines is 95 percent, and Georgia was out of compliance again in 2013 and 2014, with 79 percent and 66 percent, respectively. The fallout is the result of the increase in case files per worker during the recent recession. The goal is to reach 80 percent at the next measurement, and then 95 percent the next subsequent year.

In other words, “If Georgia does not come back into compliance, $75 million in federal funds will be lost.”

According to a new report by the Heartland institute, Georgia’s TANF policies are also coming under fire. The state, “received an F after an examination of work requirements, cash division programs, service integration, time limits, and sanction policies.”

Georgia State Sen. John Albers said, “Well, the system is clearly broken. We need to focus on giving people a hand-up and not just a hand-out.”

Fortunately, the welfare fraud committee wants to put a stop to this waste, fraud, and abuse, to protect the truly needy and slow the very activities that Channel 11 uncovered in their investigation.

The recommendations pulled from proven reforms around the country include adjusting the law to allow for more stringent prosecution of EBT fraudsters, use of modern data analytics to detect fraud within the EBT system, regularly crosschecking welfare enrollees with lottery winners, and expanding forbidden locations for EBT use, among others.

If Georgia can implement proven examples from other states, Albers may really be able to say these programs are providing “people a hand-up and not just a hand-out,” and save his taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.

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