53 charged in undercover Manatee food stamp fraud investigation

MANATEE -- Forty-five people were arrested Tuesday in Manatee County in Operation Meal Ticket, a sting by the sheriff’s office to catch people fraudently using food stamps.

In a four-month operation, a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office undercover agent, disguised as a homeless person, offered various people in the community the opportunity to buy a $300 food stamp debit card, also known as an electronic benefits transfer card, for cash or drugs, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube announced at a press conference.

The Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture supplied the cards and correct PIN code as part of the sting in order to see how widespread the use of the cards for fraud might be, said Rob Bell, a special agent with the Office of Inspector General.

Using a food stamp debit card that is not yours brings a charge of social welfare fraud, in most cases a third-degree felony.

All 45 were charged with either social welfare fraud or drug possession, said Dave Bristow a sheriff’s office spokesman.

Of the 45 arrested, 24 face drug charges for allegedly offering powder or rock cocaine, marijuana or prescription medicine in exchange for the cards, Steube said.

The remaining 21 were owners of small grocery stores, their managers or a wide range of people from the general public, Steube said.

“The way it would work with the business people is that once it was known that our person had a card available, he quickly found out the going rate was $150 cash for a $300 card,” Steube said.

“We were able to follow the cards and some of the store owners used the cards to stock up on goods at bulk-buy stores, which they would bring back to their stores and sell, sometimes raising the prices. They were making a nice profit off the cards.”

In some cases, the undercover agent was allowed to also get items not allowed by the food stamp program, said Sgt. Jason Powell, of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Another eight arrests were expected Tuesday night or Wednesday, Steube said.

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