HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES — Although the number of Floridians participating in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is down 11.2 percent from last year, the program remains one of the most widely abused forms of welfare.

The Florida Department of Financial Services Division of Public Assistance Fraud (PAF) investigates all types of fraud committed by ineligible recipients obtaining cash, housing, food, health care, education and daycare funded by state and federal programs.

“We see fraud in every area of our state,” said PAF Assistant Director Georgia Pellegrino.

According to Florida Department of Financial Services, 17 cases of public assistance fraud totaling $92,893 were detected in Holmes County from 2012 to 2016. Twenty-one cases in Washington County totaling $97,822 were uncovered in the same time span.

In May this year, authorities took down the largest food stamp scheme in American history when 22 individuals were charged in connection to $13 million worth of fraudulent food stamp transactions in Miami-Dade County.

Abuse can happen on both sides of the cash register as food merchants authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) swipe Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for non-eligible items or complete a transaction without any food ever leaving the store. The shopper is able to get cash back and the merchant will pocket a cut. Individuals even stand outside stores and sell their EBT cards for cash.

“SNAP trafficking hurts those who need it most and is the most wasteful. If they were feeding their household members, they wouldn’t be selling benefits,” said Pellegrino.

In addition to selling food benefits for cash, Pellegrino said the other most common fraud committed is falsifying information on applications for eligibility. Applicants may underreport their income or claim more dependents than are actually in the household.

Pellegrino said Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), the agency tasked with determining welfare eligibility, is an important first line of defense against public assistance fraud. DCF referred 23,000 potential cases of fraud to investigators last year, a number that isn’t surprising considering the 7.5 percent fraud rate among eligibility for food, Medicaid and cash assistance.

 “It hurts every tax payer,” said Pellegrino.

Anyone wishing to report suspected abuse of public assistance programs may do so by mailing complaints to ACCESS Central Mail Center, Fraud Report, P.O. Box 1770, Ocala, FL34478-1771 or by visiting https://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/pbi/fraud/report-fraud.shtml