SEATTLE, Wash. — Three women, the owner and two employees of a Seattle grocery store, are facing federal charges for allegedly defrauding the federal government out of thousands of dollars in a food stamp scam, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Federal agents swept through Seattle’s International District and busted what they call a major food stamp operation, arresting three women.
KOMO News cameras were rolling as agents pounced on the Hop Thanh Super Market on South Jackson Street.
Michelle Esteban of KOMO News reported that the feds allege in one year two grocery stores in Seattle’s International District redeemed more than $2 million in food stamps and they say most of that appears to be fraudulent.
The two grocers were accused of buying food stamp debit cards from cardholders for half their face value then turning around and redeeming them for the full amount.
This comes at a terrible time when families are depending on food stamps to feed their families. One single father in Seattle is working to better his life is going to school and would not be able to feed his daughter if it were not for the food program.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Jerkin called the food stamp program a critical safety-net for people who need to put food on the table and added that those who corrupted the system will be held accountable.
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KOMO News reported that money, in some cases, was in turn used for drugs and alcohol when it was intended to feed families.
According to charging documents the owner of the Seattle Chinese Herb & Grocery and the alleged ringleader is Elsa Ma Kwong, 46; and her “runners” in the scheme are Ahn Thi Nguyen, 53, and Muoi Ly.
KOMO News reported that the food program is known as SNAP, a federally-funded program designed to provide nutritional foods to low-income families. SNAP recipients are issued debit cards which allow them to purchase certain foods from eligible grocery stores.
Kwong is accused of paying SNAP recipients typically 50 cents on the dollar for their monthly benefits.
KOMO News used the example that Kwong would charge $500 on a SNAP card and pay the recipient $250 without giving them any food. Kwong would then be reimbursed the full $500 from the government, giving her a $250 profit.
SNAP recipients benefited from receiving cash they could use on what they wanted when it should have only been used to purchase food.
Nguyen and Ly allegedly facilitated the fraud by recruiting SNAP users, thereby accused of being “runners” in the scam.
The Department of Agriculture began to suspect the food stamp program was being abused three years ago and launched an undercover operation.
Court documents show that Seattle Chinese Herb & Grocery redeemed more than $2 million in food stamps between July 2009 and July 2010, and records indicate the vast majority of the food stamp transactions appear fraudulent, according to U.S. Department of Justice News Release.
SNAP fraud is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $20,000 fine.
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More articles by Isabelle Zehnder, Seattle Headlines Examiner.