A new twist on an old crime: Flipping food stamps hits social media

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It’s an old scam flipping food stamps for cash. But 8News has uncovered the hustle is now happening on social media.

Go to Facebook or Twitter and type in “food stamps for sale” and you might be shocked by how many people are openly trying to trade in taxpayer-funded benefits for cash.

In one post, a Facebook user is offering half price for their food stamps. Another Twitter user blatantly tweets “who got food stamps for sale?” 8News also found a Richmonder who posted on Facebook, “who got food stamps? I got 80 maybe a 100 to spend.”

“It’s an every other day thing,” said an East End Richmond man who has asked us not to use his name.

He told 8News he isn’t surprised to hear food stamps, or SNAP and EBT benefits as they are also called, are circulating on social media.  He said he frequently sees brazen food stamp deals going down right outside convenience stores that accept the assistance.

“People come up who are having a hard time trying to sell some food stamps for the children or something,” he said. “You gotta do what you got to do.”

“I have been to a grocery store and someone has come up and asked me if they could sell food stamps,” said Richetta Woodley Armstead, a customer at the Strictly Business Barber Shop on Nine Mile Road.

In fact, no one in the shop is shocked by the online posts either.

“I see it a lot in the community,” says Eric Jordan, the shop’s owner.

It’s illegal to sell the federally-funded benefits. They’re supposed to be a nutritional lifeline for those struggling financially.  Yet food stamp fraud is costing Americans big bucks. According to the USDA in 2015, $86 million dollars in fraud was reported across the country.

Richetta Woodley-Armstead says when some sellers approach, they claim it’s a matter of need and the need at the moment isn’t food.

“They need money to buy clothes and personal hygiene things,” Woodley-Armstead explained.

Victor Tan Chen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at VCU, believes there’s some truth to that.

“Welfare as we knew it, is gone,” he said. “We have seen dramatic reductions in terms of people on temporary assistance for needy families, the welfare program, and that has really led to families scrambling to make ends meet.”

Jordan fears they’re selling food stamps to feed their addiction.

“They selling for drugs,” he says.

Just recently, a woman in Pennslyvania was busted for posting a photo of her EBT access card on Facebook. She admitted to selling it online for a bundle of heroin.

“They need to drug test everybody if they want to get any kind of assistance,” Woodley-Armstead suggested.

Tom Steinhauser, Director of the Virginia Department of Social Services benefit program, tells 8News it’s difficult for DSS investigators to monitor social media for those abusing the system.

“It’s kind of hard to track with over a billion Facebook users,” explains Steinhauser.

Steinhauser says they do investigate tips and the department does keep an eye out for any red flags, like someone who repeatedly needs a replacement EBT card.

“When we get a report that someone is selling their benefits on Facebook we do go out and investigate, but sometimes by the time we get out there, they are already gone,” he explained.

Even without trolling Twitter or Facebook, 8News found last year the Virginia Department of social services investigated 13,302 allegations of fraud. The state was able to prove 16 percent of the cases. Those convicted are cut off.

“You would lose benefits and have to pay,” Steinhauser said.

Meanwhile, Jordan and Woodley-Armstead would like to see social services check up on those on assistance.

“They need to buckle down and come out and find out what’s going on with that,” Jordan said.

“Because that stuff is for you to step up, it’s like a foundation, it’s not for you to use for the rest of your life,” Woodley-Armstead added.

The USDA has a food stamp fraud hotline. Complaints can also be made online.

One in 10 Virginians receives food stamp or SNAP benefits.

This graph from the Virginia Department of Social Services shows the trend in the state’s caseload.

Trump cracking down on SNAP benefits

When the recession hit in 2007, a record number of people turned to food stamps here in Virginia.

8News investigative reporter Kerri O’Brien spoke with Victor Tan Chen, an assistant professor of Sociology at VCU about the topic.

“Most people on food stamps are either children, the elderly, people with disabilities or people who work full time,” Chen said. “Only about 14 percent of recipients of food stamps are either unemployed or working less than full time.”

Yet, the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to the SNAP benefits. Other Republicans are urging the President to ban recipients from using food stamps for soda and junk food. There’s also calls for new restrictions on who is eligible for the service.

“There are moves on Capitol Hill to tighten up the eligibility for food stamps, specifically their focus on tightening up the work requirements,” Chen said. “Republicans are pushing to make it harder for what’s called able-bodied individuals to get food stamps.”

Never miss another Facebook post from 8News

Find 8News on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; send your news tips to iReport8@wric.com.