Food Stamp Program:

Information on Trafficking Food Stamp Benefits

RCED-98-77: Published: Mar 26, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 23, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed food stamp trafficking at the retail level, focusing on: (1) the extent of retailer trafficking and the characteristics of the stores engaged in such trafficking; (2) the roles and efforts of federal agencies in minimizing food stamp trafficking by retailers; and (3) whether store owners or clerks were generally caught for trafficking food stamps and the extent of discipline for the trafficking.

GAO noted that: (1) according to the most recent Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) study available, about $815 million, or about 4 percent of the food stamps issued, was trafficked at retail stores during fiscal year 1993; (2) supermarkets and large grocery stores redeemed 82.5 percent of all food stamp benefits and had a combined trafficking rate of 1.9 percent of all benefits redeemed; (3) smaller grocery stores redeemed 17.5 percent of the benefits and had a combined trafficking rate of 13 percent of the benefits redeemed; (4) this study did not reflect the electronic redemption of food stamps; (5) therefore, an analysis of the extent of trafficking that includes electronic data may detect that violations are now occurring at a greater or lesser rate; (6) the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Justice (DOJ) are the principal federal agencies responsible for minimizing food stamp trafficking by retailers; (7) within USDA, both the FNS and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) are responsible for identifying and investigating retail stores engaged in trafficking; (8) FNS can take administrative actions against store owners engaged in trafficking, including disqualifying them from participating in the program and assessing fines; (9) OIG conducts criminal investigations and can refer store owners or clerks engaged in trafficking to DOJ or state or local governments for prosecution; (10) during fiscal years 1990 through 1997, FNS identified food stamp trafficking in over 5,700 retail stores, OIG investigated and reported on 5,551 trafficking cases, and DOJ and state and local governments prosecuted about 2,650 cases referred by OIG; (11) DOJ, in some jurisdictions, will pursue civil actions against store owners to collect money under the False Claims Act when it has not allocated resources to conduct criminal prosecutions or when it has a case in which the evidence for criminal prosecution is insufficient; (12) since 1992, when USDA began referring cases to DOJ, 566 false claims totalling over $5.9 million have been settled; (13) in the 432 food stamp trafficking cases GAO reviewed, store owners alone were caught trafficking in about 40 percent of the cases, and store owners and clerks together were caught trafficking in 13 percent of the cases; and (14) FNS permanently or temporarily disqualified the owners caught trafficking from participating in the Food Stamp Program in 428 cases and assessed financial penalities totalling $1.1 million against owners in 175 cases.

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