A state audit has found that the Missouri Department of Social Services’ (DSS) food stamps program is not doing an adequate job of uncovering potentially problematic purchases. State Auditor Nicole Galloway, D, says her office’s analysis shows millions in questionable transactions even though the recipients were deceased, in jail or making purchases exclusively out of state.
The agency provides the federal benefits to low-income Missourians by loading them on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to purchase groceries.
During an 18-month period, the department received more than 51,000 system alerts about suspicious activity and Galloway says it consistently failed to review the warnings. According to Galloway’s report, DSS cites a lack of resources to investigate the transactions.
Most of the suspicious activity alerts were for recipients using their benefits out of state. The audit identified $16 million in purchases made exclusively out of state for 90 consecutive days or more. Thirty-nine recipients used EBT cards exclusively out of state for more than 700 days. Galloway says some out-of-state use is allowed under federal guidelines, but it can be an indication that a recipient may no longer be a Missouri resident and no longer be eligible for benefits through the state.
Galloway says the report also discovered weaknesses in the system that led to benefits going to households with recipients who were incarcerated or no longer alive. In 3,668 cases, an EBT card was used more than 30 days after the death of the cardholder. The report also detected 62 cases receiving SNAP benefits, but the cardholder was in jail throughout the entire period reviewed. An additional 2,358 cases evaluated included the cardholder being incarcerated during a portion of the time analyzed.
“This audit found hundreds of thousands of SNAP transactions that raised red flags but were not seriously investigated by the Department of Social Services,” Auditor Galloway says. “Misuse or abuse of these benefits means that taxpayer dollars are wasted and resources are not going to Missouri families in need. We even found a case where a recipient who was in jail completed a recertification interview by phone with a Social Services caseworker. These types of situations show exactly why the department needs to take these recommendations seriously and ensure they are able to root out bad actors who are abusing the system.”
Auditors have also discovered an error in the system that resulted in fewer alerts for even-dollar transactions, a warning sign of fraudulent behavior, Galloway says. She recommends additional protections to identify “high-risk recipients” who use their cards multiple times within a short period.
Other recommendations include improving data quality and accuracy within the system. Galloway says transaction data is often incomplete, invalid or unreliable, making it difficult to manage information and identify fraud. The audit also recommends that DSS use data analytics to proactively identify and investigate benefit abuse and misuse.
The complete audit report is online here.
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