LAURINBURG — With all of the good stories of people helping people that followed Hurricane Florence, there also came a surge in scams targeting food stamps and other government benefits.
Jeff Wood, the lone program integrity investigator with Scotland County DSS, spoke with the Laurinburg Rotary Club on Tuesday and said part of his job is to investigate the misuse of those benefits.
“Unfortunately, we do see a rise in fraud after a storm like we had,” Wood said. “And I’m sure I will be investigating a lot more (in the near future).”
He explained that fraud can happen in three ways — through food stamp over-payment errors that, when discovered, must be repaid by the recipient; household errors, which can occur when a claim isn’t filed correctly; and intentional fraud, usually by misrepresenting circumstances in order to receive benefits.
But Wood said that, right now, trafficking of benefits is the big thing.
“We are seeing a lot of people selling their EBT card in exchange for cash and using that money for things like alcohol and tobacco,” he said. “They may also try to use that money to purchase firearms and other items.
“If folks can figure out a way to do it, they will,” he added.
During his years as a fraud investigator with DSS, Wood said he’s seen just about everything.
“I’ve even had people come and tell me they bought an EBT card, went to use it and found that it had been deactivated,” he said. “And then they want me to get their money back for them.
“I’m very sympathetic while I take their written statement, get it notarized and then break the bad news to them … that they are in trouble, too.” he said.
Since January 2016, Wood has investigated five local stores for participating in food stamp fraud, each of which has subsequently been banned from the program and hit with a USDA fine. Also during the 22 months since, he said he’s conducted 203 food stamp trafficking cases totaling $130,927.
“You’d be surprised, people love to call and tell me about who’s doing this,” Wood said.
He added that it takes between six and eight months per case to investigate — and he would love to see a second investigator in Scotland County.
“With another investigator, we could probably identify another $130,000 or more in fraudulent claims and trafficking violations,” he said. “We’ve been asking.”
According to Wood, the state requires that an investigation be opened within 180 days — which forces him to sometimes pick and choose which cases to go after.
“I get to them as quickly as I can,” he said.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-506-3023 or [email protected]