MOBILE, Ala. (WPMI) More than 47 million Americans receive supplemental nutrition assistance, formerly known as food stamps. That's a record high, and many of those people truly need the help. But a select few are milking the system-- getting federal money they don't need or deserve. In a Local 15 Reality Check, we investigate how much food stamp fraud costs taxpayers.
Ebony Arnold is an avid gardener, former hospital employee and one of 900,000 people in Alabama receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance.
"I never thought I would need government assistance," she says.
Four years ago, Ebony had her daughter Ava. At just a few months old, Ava was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy.
"Ava is pretty much paralyzed," Ebony says. "She has a trach, a feeding tube, she's ventilator dependent. Having to stay home with her all the time and take care of her, I lost my job."
It's a month to month struggle to make ends meet, but one of the things Ebony uses her SNAP card for is seeds for her garden. She's developed a passion for growing food with her own hands.
"It's a lot of fun to plant something and to see it grow," she says. "You get to pick what you plant."
Ebony and Ava are the kind of family SNAP was designed for. Unfortunately, not everyone using the program is so deserving.
We asked you what you know about food stamp fraud and the responses came pouring in. Local 15 viewers sent hundreds of emails and Facebook messages sharing stories of friends and family milking the system.
One of those stories came from Yahshua Kickliter.
"I actually know a couple that's fraudulently using food stamps right now," Yahshua says. "Both have full time jobs, yet they both have a brand new SUV, a prepaid government phone, and assistance with their daycare."
Yahshua works full time and is working toward a degree in hospitality management. He's got quite a busy schedule, and says it's disheartening to know part of his hard-earned check goes not to people like Ebony and Ava, but to fraudsters.
"They want to take my hard earned tax dollars to feed people who are frauding the system, when I can hardly feed myself at times," he says.
Yahshua's story is one of many we heard from you describing families claiming kids they don't actually have or lying about their income sources. The most prevalent story was that of SNAP recipients trading their EBT benefits for cash.
"Constantly when I go to the store, I have people coming up to me to see if I would like to buy their food stamp card for 50 cents on the dollar," he says, "then they turn around and buy cigarettes and alcohol. Where's the justice in that?"
Turns out, authorities say justice can be hard to come by. In 2012, agencies in Alabama submitted 42 suspected cases of food stamp fraud to be considered for prosecution. Of those, just 27 were prosecuted. Why so few? A person has to be suspected of doing a large amount of financial damage before he or she can be criminally prosecuted.
"They're not prosecuted unless they reach the dollar amount of $5,000," says Mobile County Food Assistance Program Director Donna Martin.
Martin says one in five of the state's prosecutions last year came from Mobile County.
She says even if a recipient seems suspicious, actual fraud can be very tricky to prove.
"The hardest thing to prove is who lives in the home," Martin says, "because it's he said, she said a lot of times."
What about people who cheat the system for less than $5,000? Those are the people most of our calls described. Martin says with those people, all the county can do is try to make them pay the money back.
"We currently have over 2,000 confirmed claims on file here in the county," Martin says. "That means we're trying to recoup that money back from these clients."
Food stamp fraud costs us all. One Reuters estimate puts the costs to taxpayers at $750 million every year.
The scammers who were convicted in Alabama in 2011 swindled taxpayers out of $309,000 worth of benefits. It's estimated each smaller case in the state costs us about $1,400. That's why Martin says it's so important that those who know about fraud report it.
"The people who are illegally getting them, fraudulently getting them, they do make it worse for the people entitled to them because they are taking benefits they're not entitled to," Martin says.
If you believe someone you know is defrauding the system, you can call (251) 405-4000 to report it. You can remain completely anonymous, but Martin suggests leaving your phone number so investigators can call you back with any additional questions.