BOSTON (AP) - Local police departments can target stores suspected of illegally trafficking in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits under an agreement reached Monday with state and federal welfare officials.
Until now, local police had been limited to investigating welfare recipients suspected of fraud.
The agreement between the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service permits local police to expand their investigations to stores as well.
A common type of fraud involves stores paying recipients cash for benefits at a fraction of their face value then converting those benefits back into cash for the full amount.
SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, cannot be converted by welfare recipients to cash and can only be used to purchase groceries.
"There is no place and there should be no tolerance for fraud and abuse," James Arena-DeRosa, the northeast administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food and nutrition service, told reporters.
In the last fiscal year, 22 stores in Massachusetts were permanently disqualified from the SNAP program because of fraud, he said.
Four police departments have signed onto the agreement so far, including Everett, Taunton, Attleboro and Pittsfield police. Under the agreement, police will be able to conduct undercover investigations of stores suspected of SNAP trafficking.
The new agreement also allows the state to share with local law enforcement data gathered from bi-weekly monitoring of ATM and point-of sale-withdrawals, which can identify purchases made at prohibited stores.
Gov. Deval Patrick said information sharing is needed to curb fraud, but must be done in a way to respect the privacy of recipients.
"Nobody wants any program including programs run and managed by DTA to be tainted by misuse," Patrick said, adding that the vast majority of welfare recipients are not abusing the system.
The agreement follows reports earlier this year that pointed to fraud in public benefits programs. Those prompted the state Department of Transitional Assistance to announced it would begin contacting SNAP recipients with balances greater than $5,000 to ensure they still need the benefits.
DTA commissioner Stacey Monahan also announced last month that welfare recipients who accumulate balances above $1,500 on their electronic benefit transfer cards will be notified to see if they still need assistance. EBT cards with balances exceeding $2,500 will be closed.
Lawmakers have been pushing for changes in response to several reports critical of the EBT system, including a state audit in May that found millions of dollars in questionable payments to people who were dead or otherwise ineligible for benefits.
Secretary of Health and Human Services John Polanowicz said there's "zero tolerance" for abuse of welfare programs.
"Every dollar that's lost via fraud of abuse is a dollar lost to those in need," he said.