SNAP Defense for Grocery Store Owners
In response to a report that was tabled in 2013, which highlighted escalating violations in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the United States Congress was forced to take draconian measures . The United States Department of Agriculture, with the full support of Federal Codes, has closed and disqualified hundreds of grocery stores that were found to be in violation one way or another. Getting disqualified from SNAP can result in mammoth losses to a store’s revenue. If you received a letter saying that SNAP charges have been brought against your store, you need to move quickly.
SNAP, like other government programs, is regulated and subject to certain federal codes. In the role of a shop owner, you may not have the requisite legal expertise to defend yourself against a SNAP violation. Also, there is a very short, strict time limit in which the USDA expects you to respond. Failure to comply can result in negative and far reaching consequences.
Upon receipt of a charge letter with the SNAP allegation, one of the first things you might contemplate is whether you should enlist the services of a violation attorney. Some may underestimate this charge or not handle it with the seriousness it deserves. Nonetheless, suffering major losses caused by a violation can be avoided in most circumstances. There are a number of compelling reasons why retaining a violations attorney is a smart move.
The USDA assertively combats SNAP fraud and violations
One mission of the USDA is to protect the interests of American taxpayers. As such, SNAP violations are handled with utmost gravity. The federal government has even established measures to track SNAP purchases. This assists them in identifying all suspicious transactions and launching investigations where necessary. The USDA also works in tandem with other state agencies to make certain that the violators are charged.
USDA uses cutting edge technology to pursue violators
The USDA consistently invests in the most updated technologies to ensure that their food program is not misused. One key technology is the use of electronic “audit trail” to pinpoint and follow any suspicious activity. The Anti-Fraud Locator is another tool employed in monitoring of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) systems. Grocery stores behaving in a suspicious manner can easily be spotted and heavily fined. Serious violations can end up in a temporary, or in some cases, permanent disqualification.
USDA brings SNAP Violation investigators on staff
At the USDA, there exists a wing dedicated to SNAP fraud. The department has more than 100 investigators and analysts stationed in various regions around the country. This team’s job is to analyze data to check for suspicious activities. They also conduct undercover investigations in cooperation with the police and detectives. The team is also responsible for prosecuting cases and levying fines and disqualifications for retailers who are found guilty of violations. The Department consults regularly with law enforcement authorities and fraud experts
The federal government takes strict action against violators
Retailers and store owners discovered to be abusing federal programs stand to face steep penalties. In 2012 for example, the Department deployed more than 100 investigators to survey and monitor over 15,000 stores. In the course of these investigations, around 1,400 stores suffered permanent disqualification. The lion’s share of these retailers were charged with trafficking. About 70 of the 1,400 stores were penalized for other violations including illegal sales. More serious violators served time in prison.
To keep yourself and your business on the right side of the law and to avoid lofty fines, you must be aware of what constitutes a SNAP violation.
An Explanation of SNAP Violations
Here are some activities that can draw SNAP violation charges:
- SNAP benefits trafficking. The word trafficking is a broad term used to refer to fraudulently accepting or stealing benefits.
- The owners knowingly and intentionally provided false information on the store’s application form or in an attempt to gain EBT benefits.
- If a shopkeeper or cashier accepts benefits or exchanges non-food items such as tobacco, alcohol and other unqualified products to gain SNAP benefits.
- Coupon redemptions for a particular store exceed the food sales during the same period.
- Knowingly accepting benefits from unauthorized persons. SNAP benefits should only be used by legally entitled card holders.
- If a store maintains a credit tab in exchange for EBT benefits.
To effectively present a defense against any of these violations, you need legal consultation. By yourself, you may make critical errors that can damage your case. In the first place, you need to remember that any conversations you have with the USDA are recorded. That said, any admissions of guilt can and will be against you. Often, store owners try to negotiate with the USDA for SNAP violations. The state department is not in the habit of negotiating with violators. You can be certain that once they dispatch a violation charge letter to you, their intention is to fine you or disqualify your business from the program.
Another pitfall is to openly admit wrongdoing before consulting with a violation attorney. It is important to remember that regardless of whether the USDA had detected something is amiss in your store’s transactions, you are not automatically guilty of a violation. It is prudent to review all your own records and enlist the services of an attorney. It would be damaging to you and your business if you acknowledge an inaccurate charge.
It is also a bad idea to immediately accuse your employees of wrongdoing and report the same to the USDA officials. As the owner, you will still be held accountable for any violations perpetrated on your premises and under the name of your business. Before you leap to conclusions and begin finger pointing, carry out an internal investigation with the assistance of legal counsel.
Overall, the best way to defend against a SNAP violation charge is to simply comply. Creating and implementing a written policy document that outlines clear guidelines on how SNAP transactions should be dealt with is a wise way to do this. Your employees also must be well trained on what to do and what not to do when completing SNAP transactions. Software that can help you keep track of these special transactions is also a wise and advisable investment. A Civil Penalty Fine can badly cripple the operations of your business. It could be even worse if you end up a temporary or permanent disqualification. Do yourself and your business a favor by hiring a violations attorney. Their expertise and experience can serve you in preparing a solid defense that could help you avoid expensive USDA penalties.