Welcome to the Pondera FraudCast, a weekly blog where we post information on fraud trends, lessons learned from client engagements, and observations from our investigators in the field. We hope you’ll check back often to stay current with our efforts to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in large government programs.
It has been an interesting few weeks for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp program, with two high profile busts. Both cases illustrate common schemes used to defraud the SNAP program, which distributed over $70 billion in food-purchasing assistance last year to 44 million Americans.
In Georgia, two convenience store owners used stolen identities to apply for SNAP benefits which were then loaded onto EBT cards (similar to credit cards) and mailed to addresses they controlled. Once received, they swiped the cards at their own convenience stores and pocketed over $800,000 before being caught. The U.S. Attorney assigned to the case said, “They used the SNAP system as an ATM for their personal gain, diverting critical benefits that help those who need assistance in our communities.”
Then, in Delaware, seven case workers at the Department of Health and Social Services were indicted for creating 100 fake accounts and cashing $959,000 in benefits. After creating the accounts, the case workers had the EBT cards mailed to state service centers where they simply intercepted them and used the cards themselves. Their scheme was detected when a supervisor noticed incomplete application data for one of the cards.
The Georgia case illustrates just how easy it can be (at least for a time) to use stolen identities to defraud government programs. Even if the suspects hadn't owned the convenience stores, it would not have been difficult for them to find one that would pay them a discounted price in cash for their cards.
The Delaware case is one we commonly see across states and programs where unscrupulous employees use their knowledge of the system to defraud their own government agency. Large amounts of money, combined with loose supervision, often prove too tempting for those with questionable morals.
A quick check of the government’s fraud reporting website, paymentaccuracy.gov, reveals that improper payment rates for SNAP are still not posted because of reporting problems. I look forward to updated numbers when they are available because even a small number like the 3.2% reported rate for 2014 translates to over $2.2 billion per year in improper payments.
One of my favorite websites, paymentaccuracy.gov, has received a number of updates which may provide some insight into the current administration’s priorities. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to visit the site as it provides improper payment information on the government’s high-priority programs: those that report over $750 million of improper payments in a year or have not established or reported on their error rates.
The current version of the site includes many of the usual suspects including Medicaid ($36.3 billion in errors), Medicare fee-for-service ($41.1 billion), and the Earned Income Tax Credit ($16.8 billion with a whopping 24% error rate). SNAP continues to be listed but still does not provide relative numbers because of inaccurate state reporting—something we have discussed in previous posts.
Other items of note are the inclusion of three Veterans Affairs programs for Disability Compensation, Community Care, and Purchased Long Term Services and Support. While the .59% error rate on the $64 billion Disability Compensation plan appears surprisingly low, the 75.86% error rate for the $4.7 billion Community Care program is likely the result of new reporting requirements… at least I genuinely hope so.
Other high error-rate programs include school nutrition services (both breakfast and lunch), student loan programs, and Unemployment Insurance which ticked up to 11.65% this year.
Regardless of political leanings, I think we can all agree that we want our tax dollars going to those who need them the most. And the transparency provided by paymentaccuracy.gov is a great step toward this goal. My hope is that the government will continue to provide easy access to this information. I am still disappointed each time I visit the expectmore.gov website (which reports on program performance, not just fraud, waste, and abuse) where I see the following message:
“Expect More.gov was an initiative of the George W. Bush administration. This website has been archived and is posted here as an historical resource. It has not been updated since the end of 2008 and links to many external websites and some internal pages will not work.”
A few months ago, I wrote an article offering our support to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) as it rolls out a new program offering online access to groceries for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients. My main concern with the new initiative was that FNS cannot provide an accurate SNAP fraud rate because of unreliable data coming in from the states. And we all know that offering goods and services online presents even more opportunities for fraud.
Now Congress is asking FNS additional questions in a letter sent to them on February 8th. Outlining the lawmakers’ concerns, the letter points out that as many as 10% of retailers who accept SNAP EBT cards participate in illegal trafficking schemes. These schemes pay recipients a discounted amount of cash or unapproved grocery items in exchange for their cards. They go on to point out that total annual fraud in the program is over $858 million.
The massive size of the SNAP program is one of the major reasons, historically at least, it is so difficult to detect fraud. In 2016, the program distributed $67 billion in benefits to 44 million Americans through 260,000 authorized retailers. Interestingly though, as much as 85% of the retailer fraud is committed by small grocery and convenience stores, or even flea markets like the one in Opa-Locka, FL that we recently wrote about.
With the advent of cloud computing and advanced analytics solutions, FNS now has access to the tools required to make a real difference in their fight against fraud. And by addressing the retailer side of the equation, they will also find, through association, many of the fraudulent individuals in the system as well. It would certainly make sense for FNS to leverage modern fraud detection technologies at the same time that they offer online access to groceries.
It is also important to note that the number of SNAP program retailers and recipients, while large, is very manageable. Consider that at Pondera we’ve performed equally complex fraud analytics on Medicaid programs with as many as 200,000 providers and Unemployment Insurance systems with over 1,000,000 employers. And when one considers that the overwhelming majority of SNAP trafficking fraud occurs in a concentrated subsection of small and medium retailers, the problem becomes even more manageable.
The USDA recently announced a pilot program, starting this August, to offer online access to groceries for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in seven states. Groceries will be delivered to the recipients’ homes by seven participating retailers including familiar names such as Amazon, Safeway, and Shoprite.
For many SNAP participants, this is both a tremendous convenience (saving them time) and a potential necessity (providing access to healthy foods in rural and urban “food deserts”). In fact, America’s poor have higher access to the Internet than they do to cars: 88% to 79.6%. And no one can argue that time spent with family, working, or seeking work is more valuable than time spent commuting to and shopping in grocery stores.
Of course, online transactions often lead to more opportunities for fraud. And for their part, the USDA is mandating stricter controls than those required for non-SNAP transactions, including the use of a secure PIN number on all SNAP transactions. They have also provided funding in recent years to help states address benefit card trafficking problems.
It is also known that when large sums of money are distributed through online transactions, bad actors will innovate new ways to defraud the system. In 2014, while the improper payment rate in SNAP was relatively low at 3.66%, this still represented over $2.5 billion. Perhaps more concerning is that for 2015, after the USDA worked with all 50 states to assess their payment accuracy rates, they were not able to provide an overall improper payment rate for the SNAP program because data from 42 of the 53 reporting agencies could not be validated.
In many ways, this situation encapsulates the challenges facing government organizations. While their main directive is to provide important services to citizens – which I believe includes online access to nutritious foods—they also must protect the taxpayers’ money and make sure benefits go to those who are qualified to receive them. We wish the USDA luck with this new pilot and stand ready to assist our state government clients in their program integrity efforts.
On June 9th of this year, Mike Carroll, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families provided powerful testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations. Secretary Carroll outlined some of the many successes Florida has achieved in fighting SNAP fraud. He also clearly articulated a point that we constantly stress here at Pondera. In his words…
“We are not talking about “mom and pop” storefront operations or cottage industries. We are talking about major criminal enterprises with ties to other serious and dangerous criminal activities including drug sales, prostitution and human trafficking.”
He went on to describe the SNAP program’s largest bust ever at a flea market in South Florida. Since 2011, the flea market had served 41,000 SNAP recipients and processed $89 million in transactions. Investigators found display stands using plastic fruit and vegetables, rotten produce, guns, and large amounts of cash at the retailers.
While 22 arrests have already been made, authorities still have a huge investigation in front of them. In addition, Florida is taking what they’ve learned and using it to identify other suspect locations.
This case, while large, is clearly not an isolated incident. Consider that even using the government’s own 3.7% improper payment rate translates to $2.6 billion per year in SNAP fraud and waste. Those numbers surely support a large number of organized schemes. So for those of you that think SNAP fraud is a “victimless crime”, it’s clearly time to reconsider your position.
We’re all in this together. You may work in Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance, Integrated Eligibility, SNAP, WIC, TANF, or any of the other important government programs that so many Americans depend on. Regardless of the program though, we all share the common goal of fighting fraud, waste, and abuse to make sure that our programs help those people who qualify for and truly need the assistance.
The goal of the Pondera Blog is to post and share information that is relevant to all government program integrity professionals. If we’ve learned nothing else as we work across programs and across states, it’s that bad actors don’t limit their activities to one program or one state. They follow the money wherever it leads them. For PI professionals, this means there is a lot to learn from your peers in other states and other programs.
We hope you’ll check back often for new content. Our intent is to post information on emerging fraud methods, promising detection techniques, lessons learned from our projects, and a variety of other topics. Some might question why we would share this information in a public forum where Pondera’s competitors can easily view what’s of interest to us (clearly we’ll never post anything that could help fraudsters). Our answer to that question is simple: we’re all in this together.