Florida food stamp fraud arrests: 200 people accused in years-long investigation

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Almost 200 people and several businesses in Jacksonville, Florida, are accused of food stamp fraud in a years-long investigation, police said.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams said undercover detectives identified 115 people accused of exchanging SNAP/EBT benefits for cash in Operation Half-Back.

Williams said JSO began investigating food stamp fraud in Jacksonville after a task force was created in July 2012.

The task force first investigated Jacksonville businesses suspected of taking in large sums of SNAP/EBT benefits in exchange for cash at a rate of 50 cents on the dollar.

For example, a SNAP recipient would swipe their card for $500 and receive $250 in cash from the business.

The funds given to SNAP cardholders by the government were expected to be used on food.

JSO said businesses, some of which claimed to sell meat, seafood and produce, often gave recipients little to no merchandise for the EBT purchases.

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"(The mobile vendors) simply served as a clearinghouse for exchanging cash and in some cases illegal narcotics for SNAP benefits," Williams said.

Williams said in at least once case, SNAP benefits were exchanged for powder cocaine.

JSO highlighted four "mobile vendors" that took in more than $3.7 million in taxpayer money.

"That money fuels the criminal enterprises in our community," Williams said. "It's used in the drug trade and trafficking of guns. That money fuels that issue for us here in Jacksonville."

Williams said JSO also targeted people who gave large sums of SNAP benefits to undercover officers for lesser amounts of cash.

Many suspects contacted undercover detectives each month, as soon as SNAP benefits were placed on their cards, Williams said.

Undercover investigators conducted 390 transactions with 115 EBT recipients from February to July 2017.

JSO said each transaction was audio/video recorded. The funds were returned to the United States Department of Agriculture.

"These people are stealing money from hardworking taxpayers right here in our community," Williams said. "They are abusing a program meant to help people in our community."

JSO said more arrests are pending.

Williams is encouraging anyone who suspects a person or business of food stamp fraud to report them by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS (8477) or emailing JSOCrimeTips@jaxsheriff.org.