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OPA-LOCKA (CBSMiami) — More than two dozen people are facing federal and state charges in connection to an illegal scheme that traded food stamp benefits for cash.
Wednesday morning, police raided the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market where some of the activity was alleged to have taken place.
“This is the largest fraud take down in U.S. history,” said U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer.
22 retail store owners or operators were indicted for receiving more than $13 million in federal payments for transactions in which they did not provide any food — a fraud scheme officials called “food stamp trafficking.”
“The card is for the sole purpose of food, not cash, and they were never to be used as you would at an ATM,” Ferrer explained. “These retailers betrayed the public trust by stealing millions of dollars from a food stamp program that is aimed at helping low income people who have needs of food and nutrition.”
Authorities said the cards would be swiped in exchange for cash payments that were far less than what store owners would bill the government.
“Basically, the people would come here with the food stamp card and get cash at a reduced amount,” said Miami-Dade Police Maj. Ignacio Alvarez.
Neighboring vendors at the flea market, like Felix Lanza, said they had no idea what the others were doing.
“Thank God we don’t do that. We go by the law,” Lanza said, operating a fruit and produce stand.
Thousands of SNAP recipients, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are believed to have exchanged their EBT benefits for cash at the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market, in what authorities said was a two-year operation.
“These flea market retailers are charged with having taken advantage of a provision in the SNAP program designed to provide locally sourced fresh produce and meat to low income families who otherwise would likely have no option for such food items,” stated Karen Citizen-Wilcox, Special Agent in Charge, USDA-OIG. “The flea market retailers, who are alleged to have orchestrated this trafficking scheme, pocketed millions in “fees” which they charged for converting food assistance benefits into cash.”
Another 6 individuals were charged by the state, accused of accepting additional illegal payments during the course of their alleged participation in the food stamp fraud.
Authorities said this was just the first phase of curbing fraud in the SNAP program.
“When individuals defraud governmental programs, they steal taxpayer-funded benefits that are intended to feed the families and children in our communities who are most in need,” said Ferrer.
Those arrested face up to 20 years in prison for wire fraud and wire fraud conspiracy, as well as five years for food stamp fraud.