“Are you buying your groceries with cash?”
The first time a stranger approached me in a Food for Less in a low-income community asking me this, I thought, “What an odd question.”
What difference does my payment method make? Why would I divulge that information — to a stranger no less? Then it hit me.
When I politely declined, the stranger insisted.
“I’ll give you $60 for $25,” she said.
She was offering to exchange her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, otherwise known as food stamps, for cash from me.
Read More: Growing Up Poor Taught Me to Overspend
The second time this happened in a high-end grocery chain, the gentlemen offered to sell me food stamps twice within 30 minutes. He didn’t remember me the second time around.
Buying food stamps might seem like a quick win-win. Your dollar goes further. There is no sales tax tacked on. You might even be helping someone in a cash-strapped bind. However, you could also be committing a felony. According to the USDA, unauthorized use of $100 or more in SNAP benefits is a violation of the Food Stamp Act and a felony.
Nearly 200 people were recently swept up in a food stamps fraud investigation by the Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office in Florida. Undercover officers documented hundreds of illegal exchanges. In one case, food stamps were even exchanged for cocaine.
Chonce Maddox, a personal finance writer, once used the food stamp program to overcome poverty as a young adult. She finds the practice of buying food stamps unethical and harmful to those who most need assistance.
“People already have an incorrect assumption about everyone who’s on food stamps. Many people are struggling to feed their family and make ends meet. When the government cracks down on benefits because of a few bad actors, it makes it harder on everyone else,” she said.
Maybe President Trump’s proposed SNAP benefit reforms like mandatory drug testing for a small portion of SNAP recipients or food delivery boxes on par with Hello Fresh will help root out fraud, waste and abuse, but that seems unlikely. Mandatory drug testing is only being proposed for 5 percent of all SNAP recipients. Able-bodied adults with no dependents are the only participants in this new reform’s crosshairs.
More on Groceries: States That Spend the Most and Least on Groceries
Fortunately, the fraud rates in the food stamps program have declined dramatically over the years. In 1993, the fraud uncovered was equal to about 4 cents for every U.S. tax dollar spent. As of 2006, that amount had dropped to only 1 cent. Today, the incidents of fraud in the food stamp system account for less than 1.5 percent of all transactions.
Still, in places like Illinois, the electronic cards used by food stamp recipients only contain an account number. This means that anyone with the PIN can gain access to funds associated with that account. A simple approach to address unauthorized use would be to require a picture I.D. If proper identification were required at the checkout, I wouldn’t be able to use a stranger’s card in exchange for a few dollars. And fewer unsuspecting shoppers would engage in fraud, putting themselves in danger of becoming the news cycle’s next food stamp felon.
More From Our Smart Money Squad: