(Memphis) There is new information about a News Channel 3 investigation about food stamp fraud.
Our undercover investigation revealed bold abuse of the program including the purchase of condoms and beer.
Since we broke the story, federal authorities have now launched an investigation.
After our story aired, we were contacted by the USDA Inspector General’s Office, the agency that cracks down on food stamp fraud.
An investigator came to watch our story in the studio, to see what we caught on tape at a Memphis store.
A trip to Food Land weeks after our investigation revealed the store still open, but one major component is missing.
The store no longer accepts food stamp EBT cards as of May 1st.
That’s just days after our On Your Side investigation aired.
The probe triggered a surprise visit from the USDA Inspector General’s Office.
Our News Channel 3 camera crew went back to the store to try to talk to the owner, but we were immediately asked to leave.
This is unlike the last time, when we were invited in and allowed to ask owner Rahim Kajani about what our undercover investigation uncovered.
A clerk handed us the phone so we could talk to him.
I asked, “What items are you allowing customers to purchase with their food stamp cards?”
Prior to that phone call, our mystery shoppers made three undercover trips inside.
They put detergent, Ramen noodles and a six-pack of beer on the counter.
The clerk swiped the food stamp card no questions asked.
The catch is, we didn’t want to break the law, so we intentionally enter the wrong PIN number.
We did that a couple of times, just to be obvious.
“If it doesn’t go through this time, I`m going to go ahead and go. Alright. I`m going to go ahead and go. Thank you, though. I`m sorry,” said our mystery shopper to the clerk.
We left the items on the counter, but we witnessed customers leaving with beer, diapers and condoms after paying with the EBT card.
The EBT machine at Food Land is only for EBT/food purchases.
There is no cash option for those receiving money from Families First.
The owner denied knowing anything about food stamp trafficking, “That should not be happening or supposed to. If it’s happening like that I need to check my cashiers,” said Kajani.
He made changes on his own, cutting off food stamps at the store.
Customers now say the store is going out of business.
The store is advertising everything at 40% off, except beer and cigarettes.
Signs along the street appear to be attracting new customers.
“Is the food good?” shopper Louise Taylor asked us.
She added, “I’ll go in and check it out.”
These signs attract some new customers but we find some still coming because of the stores old reputation.
Amanda Trice is visibly disappointed as she leaves the store empty-handed, “I have a baby and I was trying to get her Pampers and wipes and that was it.”
We asked if she’d been in the store before, and she said this was her first time, but she admitted she’d heard she could use her food stamp card to make the purchase she needed.
“He said he doesn’t have the machine. I guess since he seen y’all out here he say he closing the store down,” said Trice.
Food Land’s owner voluntarily stopped accepting EBT cards, but if government investigators find official violations, they can sanction the owner.
Sanctions can include a written warning letter, temporarily disbarment or permanent removal and assessment of civil penalties. Fraud can even bring criminal charges.
In Shelby County, between 2010 and 2011, the USDA fined 4 retailers, temporarily suspended 17 and barred 8 from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) permanently.
Just recently, undercover investigations like ours were the subject of hearings in Washington.
Some lawmakers complained too many retailers caught defrauding the food stamp program were being allowed to stay on it.
They discovered some barred from the program had even found a way to skirt USDA rules to keep accepting food stamp money.
The USDA has 31 agents working criminal cases but they are thinly stretched across the entire Southeast region of the country.