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.
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.