HAMILTON, Ohio (AP) -- A special squad is targeting food stamp fraud in a southwest Ohio county, and authorities say it's already headed off nearly $200,000 in what would have been spending on things other than food aid.
The Butler County squad formed in July includes one full-time and one part-time sheriff's detective, an assistant prosecutor and a county Job and Family Services employee. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports (http://cin.ci/U6td76 ) the squad's investigations have led to 17 arrests so far.
With about one in seven Americans getting federal food aid after the Great Recession, authorities say it's important to make sure the program is being used as intended. Ohio officials say every county has a food stamp fraud investigator, but state spokeswoman Angela Terez said she wasn't aware of any other counties with a special squad set up.
Butler County Sheriff's Lt. Mike Craft says drug users will often sell their their benefits cards to get quick cash.
"A large part of it is drugs," Craft said. "They wouldn't hesitate to sell their cards for cash, even if it's half on the dollar, to get money to support their drug habit."
Now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, food stamp aid is distributed by states not in stamps but in Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work like debit cards. Investigators say fraudsters sometimes claim they have lost their cards and get a new one after selling their old one. The state has found counties sometimes don't follow up on tracking reports on replacement cards.
In November, Butler County distributed $6.1 million in food assistance to 47,000 households.
"It was very important for the county commissioners that we take a firm stance on those folks that were defrauding this program," said Jerome Kearns, director of Butler County's Job and Family Services agency.
Craft said Sheriff Richard Jones agrees that protecting the food program from fraud is a priority.
"He point-blank told me whatever resources we need to make this successful, to do it," Craft said.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com