CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reveals food stamp recipients using millions of your tax dollars to buy beer, cigarettes, guns and other illegal items, including cars.
In an exclusive interview, Chris Joseph, an agent with the Ohio Investigative Unit, told NewsChannel5 investigator Sarah Buduson he has investigated recipients who fail to use their government benefits to care for their children.
"Sometimes, you'll see a 2-year-old who should be wearing diapers and they're just wandering around because they can't afford to buy diapers, but then, at the same time, you'll see a smart phone and a Coach purse sitting there," he said.
Though they are still commonly referred to as food stamps, recipients of the U.S. government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) now receive their benefits on an electronic card that can be swiped like a debit card. Joseph said rogue retailers will ring up purchases for legal food items, while actually allowing recipients to buy illegal items, like beer.
He said rogue retailers also let recipients trade their benefits for pennies on the dollar. For example, Joseph said a rogue retailer can give the recipient $50 in cash for $100 worth of benefits.
After receiving information about the incorrect use of SNAP benefits, Dave Yost, the Ohio Auditor of State, investigated how the Ohio Department of Jobs & Family Services manages the SNAP program.
His investigators found more than 340,000 recipients reported a lost or stolen food stamp card in 2011. He found more than 17,000 recipients had received 10 or more food stamp cards.
"There's something bad going on here," said Yost.
NewsChannel5 investigators obtained information on lost or stolen cards in Cuyahoga County. We found 44,538 local food stamp receipts who reported more than 10 or more electronic food stamps cards lost or stolen during a five-year period.
Out of the 44,538 people who reported 10 or more lost or stolen cards, 268 of those recipients reporting losing their cards between 40 and 47 times between June 2006 and March 2011
"We see it a lot. It's not an immediate indicator of fraud. Some people are just reckless, but it is a red flag," Joseph said.
Yost and Joseph said most recipients do use their benefits properly. However, the cost of food stamp fraud still wastes millions of U.S. tax dollars.
Joseph said $3.8 million in food stamp fraud has been uncovered in the Cleveland area over the last few years. Yost estimates that food stamp fraud costs Ohioans about $90 million per year.
"Right now, the controls are little too flimsy," he said, about how the state maintains the SNAP program.
However, Yost and Joseph said they are more concerned about the benefits failing to reach impoverished children.
"There are children who just aren't eating because mom and dad want to get beer and cigarettes instead," Joseph said.