Some people are able to manipulate and gain access to Electronic Benefits Transfer system or EBT when they aren’t qualified and it is known as EBT fraud.
Every year, millions of people in the United States rely on governmental assistance programs to help them survive. This may include help with medical costs, housing, or food expenses. One common program is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides money for food and other nutritional items to those in need. The money is provided via an electronic system known as the Electronic Benefits Transfer system, or EBT.
Unfortunately, some people are able to manipulate these systems and gain access to EBT when they aren’t qualified or use their EBT cards in improper ways. When this occurs, it is known as EBT fraud and can be prosecuted by the state under broader public assistance fraud laws.
SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal program often known as “food stamps” that provides vouchers that can be used to purchase food and similar items by those with low incomes. These vouchers are issued via EBT cards at the household level.
In order to qualify for the SNAP program in Georgia, you must be a resident of the state and meet one of the following requirements:
Your annual income must also be under a cap that is determined by the number of people in your household.
The EBT card has restrictions on what can be purchased. Food items that are not already prepared and are not being eaten in-store can be bought on an EBT card. Items that are off-limits also include alcohol or tobacco, any non-food items like household supplies, vitamins, or medication.
These rules are enforced by both the retailers who accept EBT cards as well as the governing agencies.
EBT falls under the category of public assistance fraud, also known as welfare fraud. Though SNAP is a federally funded program, it is administered by each state, so most laws are enforced at the state level, though the federal government can also be involved.
Welfare fraud occurs when someone lies about their need or eligibility for benefits through either falsity or omission. There are a number of entities that can be accused of fraud, including billers, providers, and recipients. In biller or provider fraud, an entity overcharges or uses false billing information when seeking federal funds to cover their services.
Recipient fraud involves an individual knowingly or intentionally providing false or misleading information or omitting information when applying for assistance, misusing public funds or benefits, or failing to notify agencies of significant changes that may impact eligibility.
When false information is provided, it is typically in the form of lying on an application for assistance. This may include income level, household size and composition, criminal history, citizenship status, or disability status. Any intentional misinformation or omission is classified as fraud and may also lead to perjury charges. This information can also change over time, and recipients are expected to report material changes to the issuing agency. For example, if a person gets a raise that would make them ineligible for benefits, this must be reported. When this isn’t done, it is considered fraud.
Other cases involve the restrictions placed on these benefits. EBT cards are generally only able to be used in certain locations, such as grocery or drug stores. It is illegal under federal law to use an EBT card at a liquor store, casino, or adult venue, and many states prohibit the purchase of certain items like tobacco or lottery tickets. If these benefits are used in an unacceptable way, this can be considered fraud as well.
In Georgia, EBT Fraud is punishable under the Georgia Code, Title 49, Chapter 4, Article 1, 49-4-15- Fraud in obtaining public assistance, food stamps, or Medicaid; penalties; recovery of overpayments.
This criminalizes any person who “by means of a false statement, failure to disclose information, or impersonation, or by other fraudulent device, obtains or attempts to obtain, or any person who knowingly or intentionally aids or abets such a person in the obtaining or attempting to obtain”:
Any person who aids or abets in the buying or disposing of the property of a recipient of public assistance can also be punished under these laws. If this property exceeds $500 in value, this is considered a felony.
Both state and federal laws allow for punishment when EBT fraud is found to be present. This can include incarceration, repayment of benefits, and suspension or disqualification of benefits.
In all jurisdictions, welfare fraud is considered a crime eligible for criminal penalties. Some states have an individual charge for the crime, while others may use theft, perjury, and forgery charges to prosecute these cases.
In Georgia, benefits are suspended for all offenders. A first-time offender is suspended for one year, a second-time offender for two years, and a third offense leads to permanent disqualification. This generally occurs in the case of misusing funds. If an individual is found to make a fraudulent statement to receive multiple benefits at once, they can be banned from the program for ten years.
When cases are more serious, a government agency can pursue either misdemeanor or felony charges. In Georgia, anything exceeding $1500 makes the fraud a felony conviction. A judge will be able to determine the exact sentence, but it could include some years in jail. It’s also very common to require the benefits are paid back to the state in full.
In addition to individual prosecutions, EBT retailers can be tried for fraud as well if they are taking EBT cards when they should not be. These cases can be high profile and have harsher fines.
While this is typically a criminal proceeding, some states may take the case through an administrative proceeding instead of criminal court. Intentional program violations can be sent to an administrative disqualification hearing, which has different procedures and outcomes than criminal cases. These instances will still require a lawyer though they may have less harsh penalties.
In order to be convicted of welfare fraud, the prosecutor has to be able to prove you had fraudulent intent, meaning you knew you were committing fraud and intended to do so. This means that accidental omissions or misinformation cannot be considered fraud, and the prosecutor must prove that this was the case. Often it is difficult to prove that you knew and understood all of the statutes associated with assistance.
A defense lawyer can also help successfully argue for your case to be diverted from the court system and into a program that focuses on restitution. This may require you to pay back your benefits and be disqualified for a period of time but can help avoid criminal charges and jail time.