Incentives for states may boost SNAP fraud detection

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2014 - State officials might improve their record in detecting fraud in USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if financial incentives were provided that would help support the costs of investigation, according to the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO).

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In a 60-page report released last week, GAO said it reviewed procedures and interviewed officials in 11 states that together serve about a third of the 47 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits - formerly Food Stamps - each month. States help administer the federal government program, which handed out $76 billion in benefits in fiscal year 2013.

“Most of the selected states reported difficulties in conducting fraud investigations due to either reduced or maintained staff levels while SNAP recipient numbers greatly increased from fiscal year 2009 through 2013,” GAO said in the report.

The report, which was requested by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Al., the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, noted that there are currently no rewards for the state investigative agencies, and it recommends that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) consider such financial incentives.

GAO also said that despite increasing its oversight of state anti-fraud activity in recent years, FNS “does not have consistent data on states' anti-fraud activity because its reporting guidance lacks specificity.”

“Additional oversight efforts, such as providing guidance to states for reporting consistent data, could improve FNS's ability to monitor states and obtain information about more efficient and effective ways to combat fraud,” it said.

Additionally, GAO said it found limitations in the effectiveness of certain website monitoring tools used to detect trafficking in SNAP benefits. Manual searches for suspicious posts often proved to be more effective, GAO noted.

“GAO found the recommended tool for monitoring social media to be impractical due to the volume of irrelevant data,” according to the report.

GAO also called on the Secretary of Agriculture to “establish additional guidance” to help states analyze SNAP transaction to better identify households that are selling SNAP benefits and then seeking replacement cards.

GAO noted that USDA officials agreed with its recommendations.

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