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State gets new role in fraud probes

Retailers focus of food stamp deal

State and federal officials Monday signed an agreement empowering Massachusetts authorities to investigate retailers who may be engaging in food stamp-related fraud.

Because the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal one, national authorities usually investigate retailer fraud, while leaving consumer fraud investigations to the states.

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But under the agreement signed Monday, state agencies can now go after stores that accept food stamps in exchange for lesser amounts of cash, pocketing the difference.

Stacey Monahan, commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, called it “a first-of-its-kind agreement in Massachusetts” and said it “will allow the department to collaboratively investigate potential SNAP trafficking and allow law enforcement to prosecute those who are making money by defrauding the system.”

Massachusetts becomes the 15th state to have an active agreement of this type with the US Department of Agriculture, officials said.

Monahan and the regional administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, James Arena-DeRosa, signed the agreement at the Tip O’Neill federal building in Boston.

Arena-DeRosa described what retailer fraud might look like: A consumer gives a cashier $100 worth of food benefits, gets $50 in cash, but no food, and the store pockets $100 worth of reimbursement from the program, without having given up any inventory.

John Polanowicz, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said the agreement would give the state “new tools for investigating those involved with fraud and SNAP benefits trafficking.”

Four Bay State cities — Everett, Taunton, Attleboro, and Pittsfield — have also signed agreements that will simultaneously authorize them to investigate nutritional assistance benefit fraud by retailers. More municipalities may join.

“We basically become a force multiplier for the state and federal government,” said Everett’s police chief, Steven A. Mazzie. He said local investigations could involve “an undercover-type role.”

Before state or local authorities can begin an investigation, the federal government must give approval. That is meant to avoid duplicate investigations, officials said.

Polanowicz said he does not know how widespread retailer fraud is in Massachusetts. On the national level, it has declined over the years.

“The overall SNAP trafficking rate since 1993 has dropped from about four cents on the dollar of SNAP benefits to about one cent on the dollar,” he said.

After reports of fraudulent use of welfare benefits, the Legislature has recently been working to tighten public assistance programs. Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which have been the subject of controversy, can include state and federal welfare benefits.

One analyst said the additional efforts are worthwhile.

Food stamp fraud “is a relatively small problem, but it continues to be a problem,” said Deborah Harris, a staff attorney at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

“We support state, local, and federal efforts to stop unscrupulous retailers from preying on low-income people.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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