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12 in South Florida are charged in massive $20 million food stamp fraud case

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Florida EBT Card (Food Stamps).

A dozen South Floridians are facing federal charges they defrauded more than $20 million from the government by illegally trading food stamps for cash, prosecutors said Monday.

The retail store owners, operators and clerks are accused of accepting federal payments for illegal cash transactions that involved no purchase of food, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida.

Food stamp benefits, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, are provided via debit cards to low-income individuals and families. The taxpayer-funded national program is intended to alleviate hunger and malnutrition.

The fraud in Broward and Miami-Dade counties operated by swiping food stamp recipients’ debit cards at the stores to make it look like they bought food. Instead, the fraudsters gave the card holder a reduced percentage of the value of the food stamps benefit — in cash, authorities said.

The store owners and operators would then claim full reimbursement for the transaction, making it look like food was sold, according to court documents.

According to prosecutors, those charged include:

— Hasan Saleh, 59, the manager of the Four Corners convenience store, 821 NW Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Investigators said the store was not authorized to offer benefits but employees, including Saleh, exchanged food stamp benefits for cash by running the transactions at a Miami store. Authorities said the fraud involved about $2 million between April 2015 and August 2017.

— Yousef Homedan Zahran, 60, aka “Yousef Hussein” or “Joe” of Pompano Beach, a clerk at the Community Food Store, 401 NW 27th Ave., Pompano Beach, is accused of selling food stamp benefits in exchange for cash between November 2016 and January 2017.

If convicted, the defendants could face punishments of between five and 20 years in federal prison, depending on the seriousness of the charges. The cases are all still pending and none of the accused have been convicted of any wrongdoing.

Karen Citizen-Wilcox, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, said federal investigators will continue to aggressively investigate and prosecute these cases.

“In this instance, eight small convenience stores in south Florida committed a staggering amount of fraud in a relatively short amount of time … The storeowners who allegedly orchestrated this trafficking scheme pocketed millions in “fees” which they charged for converting food assistance benefits into cash,” she said.

pmcmahon@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula

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©2017 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

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