Nearly 200 people were caught in an undercover welfare benefits-for-cash operation doing deals with a fictitious business set up by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
After busting brick-and-mortar and mobile vendors hocking cash for welfare benefits, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office set up its own enterprise in the food stamp fraud market.
In six months undercover detectives swapped benefits for cash at least 390 times at 50 cents to the dollar, Sheriff Mike Williams announced Tuesday, dubbing the endeavor "Operation Half-Back."
The Sheriff's Office conducted its work from February to July, recording each transaction on video. Twenty-one "recruiters" or intermediaries were charged with multiple felonies: organized schemes to defraud and public assistance fraud. Additionally, warrants have been issued for 116 people to be charged with felony public assistance fraud for transactions exceeding $200 and 61 people to be charged with misdemeanors for transactions less than that amount.
"These people are stealing money from hardworking taxpayers in our community, and they are abusing a program that is meant to help people in our community," Williams said.
He said the operations were important also because the cash flowing out of the transactions helps fuel drug trade and gun trafficking.
Attorney General Pam Bondi also heralded the operation, saying "Food stamp trafficking steals from Florida's hardworking taxpayers." Bondi's office will prosecute the felony cases.
The Sheriff's Office's policing of food stamp fraud dates back to 2012 when it began collaborating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General, Homeland Security Investigations (a wing of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the U.S. Secret Service to "create a program addressing SNAP fraud," Williams said Tuesday.
SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program.
"Initially it was brick-and-mortar businesses purchasing SNAP benefits for cash," Williams said.
From 2015 to 2017 "numerous fictitious businesses" were opened by people using a wireless terminal to charge EBT cards and conduct fraudulent transactions for cash, Williams said.
The Sheriff's Office highlighted four cases of these mobile vendors, who they said conducted about 22,000 fraudulent transactions that resulted in a loss of roughly $3.7 million of taxpayer money.
The false businesses highlighted by the Sheriff's Office were Sheonna's Seafood, URKO Ballers Produce, Lawaun Walker's Produce, RNS Mobile Meats LLC and Sisters Mobile Meats LLC.
Benjamin Conarck: (904) 359-4103