Food stamps illegally bought, sold on Facebook

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A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into possible fraud in the state’s FoodShare benefits program found that some people are illegally buying and selling food stamps on Facebook.

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into possible fraud in the state’s FoodShare benefits program found that some people are illegally buying and selling food stamps on Facebook. The newspaper reported Sunday that it found nine Facebook users in Milwaukee and about 70 users nationwide had posted to the social networking site to either buy or sell food assistance benefits illegally — or to help others do so. State Department of Health Services spokeswoman Beth Kaplan acknowledges social networks could be used to scam the program. "We have isolated reports of this activity, but no specific client information that could be investigated," Kaplan said. "We take any fraudulent activity very seriously and would investigate any activity that occurs in Wisconsin and would make a referral to law enforcement if we suspect any criminal activity." Wisconsin’s $1 billion a year FoodShare program is run by the state and counties with federal money. The Journal Sentinel found several examples of people looking to deal food stamps on Facebook. Angel Gunn of Milwaukee wanted to buy the public food assistance benefits on Dec. 28. "Do U anybody have any stamps for sell? If so contact me ASAP thank you," she typed on her Facebook wall. Four minutes later, Gunn had a potential taker. In just over five months, she put out four other online requests for "stamps" and "food stamps," though she claims none led to sales. "There’s no evidence or proof that I received them," said Gunn, a 29-year-old child care provider who recently had her license revoked for alleged fraud. In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, Gunn claimed she never defrauded the child care program and she doesn’t think she did anything wrong by posting a request to buy food stamps on Facebook. She said she sought to buy FoodShare benefits to help purchase groceries for herself and her family because her own benefits weren’t enough. She claimed she didn’t know buying benefits was illegal, even though the state makes this clear in bold letters on the FoodShare application. On May 3, Andrew Lovett of Milwaukee wrote: "I buy Quest inbox me," referring to the Quest debit card used to pay benefits. In an interview, Lovett told the newspaper he didn’t buy a card that day, but did so at other times. Lovett said as a truck driver and single father, he had a hard time supporting his five children. "They’re absolutely looking to do something illegal and they know it," said Ed O’Brien, a former Chicago police officer and private investigator of public benefits fraud, who looked at the Facebook postings for the newspaper. The Journal Sentinel’s review is another example of how easy it is to illegally sell the state-issued cards and benefits. In April, the newspaper reported that nearly 2,000 FoodShare recipients claimed they lost their card six or more times in 2010 and requested replacements— a sign of possible fraud. Meanwhile, law enforcement and state officials are investigating allegations that nine Milwaukee County employees stole at least $290,000 from FoodShare over the last five years. On Friday, lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee voted to increase funding for uncovering fraud in the FoodShare program and to study the possibility of requiring participants’ photos on their Quest cards. Those budget provisions have to clear the Legislature and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker. Those who deal the food stamps on Facebook say buyers typically pay 50 cents on the dollar for the benefits on Quest cards, either taking the card outright or borrowing it along with the seller’s private PIN number. The buyers get twice the food for their money, and the sellers get cash to use on non-food items. Sherrie Tussler, executive director of Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee, said some of the Facebook updates she reviewed appeared criminal and that FoodShare recipients are told clearly that it’s illegal to buy and sell the benefits. But Tussler said she believes the vast majority of recipients are honest and fraud is the exception. She said state officials should focus on the few violators and avoid actions that would end up hurting the majority of recipients who need the program. "It doesn’t make sense to hurt the program because of a few people," she said. Tussler said some poor recipients make the bad bargain of selling their benefits for less than they’re worth because they have to scrape together cash for rent or car repairs. Gov. Walker’s commission on fraud and government waste is looking at FoodShare fraud for a report due later this summer. Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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