4 stores reach $100,000 food-stamp-fraud settlement

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ST. THOMAS - Four convenience stores in the territory have reached a settlement with the federal government after allegations that the stores unlawfully traded food stamp benefits for cash.

The settlement requires the four stores to pay the United States in excess of $100,000, and be permanently barred from participating in the Food Stamp Program, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office on Friday.

"Food stamp fraud hurts children and the elderly who rely on these monthly allowances for their food," U.S. Attorney Ronald Sharpe said. "When a substantial portion of these benefits are used to pay the retailers instead of feed these vulnerable individuals, the entire community suffers."

The four convenience stores involved in the settlements were: Lower Love Service Station in Frederiksted on St. Croix; and Broadway Food Mart in the Fort Mylner Shopping Center, In and Out Mini Mart in Frydendahl, and Max Mart in Nisky Center on St. Thomas.

The Food Stamp Program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is administered in the Virgin Islands by the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service.

The program provides funds to low-income individuals to allow them to purchase more nutritious foods. Eligible individuals receive an electronic benefit transfer card, which operates like a debit card. Recipients use the EBT card to purchase approved food items from participating retailers, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Sharpe said that the four settlement agreements are part of a broader effort by the U.S. Attorney's Office to address food stamp fraud in the territory.

"We are putting retailers who trade food stamp benefits for cash on notice that federal authorities are on their trail," Sharpe said. "Retailers who engage in food stamp fraud are subject to both civil monetary penalties and criminal penalties, including jail time."

The U.S. Agriculture Department is moving aggressively to control food stamp trafficking by using SNAP purchase data to identify suspicious transaction patterns, conducting undercover investigations, and collaborating with other investigative agencies, including the U.S. Attorney's Office and local law enforcement.

SNAP retailers and recipients are reminded that only eligible food items can be exchanged for EBT benefits, and that it is illegal to exchange EBT benefits for cash or non-food items such as tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets.

For more information about the SNAP program or to report SNAP fraud, visit www.fns.usda.gov. Fraud complaints may also be filed with the U.S. Attorney's Office at 774-5757.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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