Dozens arrested in welfare fraud scheme - FOX 13 News

Dozens arrested in welfare fraud scheme

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The Manatee County Sheriff's Office says they've busted dozens of people for welfare fraud.

Tuesday, Detectives arrested at least 45 suspects. The department is calling the investigation "Operation Meal Ticket."

Sheriff Brad Steube held a press conference, joined by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

"It certainly diminishes the standing of the program," Special Agent Robert Bell said.

"It calls into question aspects of the program and therefore, that hurts people that do need to receive these benefits," he said.

Investigators say the suspects bought Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards from undercover detectives for half their value.

Sheriff Steube says the suspects would then use the cards and associated pin numbers to buy food. Investigators say it also highlights the ease in which benefit recipients can sell their federal assistance in exchange for cash.

"Instead of going out and buying legitimate food for themselves and their families, they'll go out and sell that card for cash," the sheriff said.

They'll use that cash to go out and buy drugs, alcohol, et cetera," said Jeff O'Connor of Homeland Security.

Steube says in a few cases, store owners and clerks bought EBT cards at half their value in order to stock their store shelves and make extra money.

"They would go to Walmart and buy $300 worth of milk and you buy it in bulk, so you're getting it at a lower price at $3 a gallon. Then, I would take that back to my store and stock my shelves and sell it for $4.50 a gallon," Steube said.

Florida is third in the nation in receiving SNAP benefits. Bell says it's hard to say how many people are defrauding the system, but says cases like Operation Meal Ticket highlight areas for improvement within the program.

The Sheriff's Office issued a total of 53 arrest warrants in the case. More arrests are expected.

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