NEW ORLEANS -- Eyewitness News has learned more than $1 million worth of food stamps intended for people in need wound up in the hands of convicted criminals.
That is just one type of fraud and abuse that was discovered in Louisiana's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as SNAP.
Across the metro area stickers displayed in store windows welcome SNAP customers. More have signed up for the federal program in Louisiana likely a sign of the times.
"Currently we have about 19 percent of our population depending on this program. That seems to be pretty extreme," said Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera.
A recent audit of the state's SNAP program uncovered major abuse. According to the Louisiana legislative uditor's report, 1,761 incarcerated participants got about $1.1 million in benefits between 2011 and 2012.
The report also uncovered information that a little over 1,500 SNAP users received duplicate benefits in both Louisiana and another state from 2010 to 2011.
Another example of abuse was highlighted in the state auditor's report. It showed one SNAP participant in the New Orleans metro area who would show up to a Supercenter the same day of every month, in some cases spending $1,316 in an hour.
"All those things put together points to red flags that give us as auditors and as a state agency give us an indication that fraud is occurring. We need to do a better job of determining if that is fraud and preventing those in the future," said Purpera.
The state audit also shows that retailers are cheating the system. Last December, the USDA says 169 retailers were being investigated
"Perhaps there is trafficking going on. The participant is selling his or her card. The benefits on the card for 50 cents on a dollar," said Eyewitness News legal analyst Donald "Chick" Foret.
Foret says SNAP is an electronically funded federal program which leaves a technological trail that can help catch those criminals who are breaking the law.
"Anyone who violates the statute at a value over $100 has committed a felony under the federal law and can go to the federal penitentiary. For the retailers who deal in multiple cards any violation over $5,000 is punishable up to 20 years in prison," said Foret.
In response to the audit report, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Suzy Sonnier issued this statement on Monday:
"As with all programs, DCFS works to ensure the SNAP program is available for eligible applicants by aggressively protecting against fraud and abuse. DCFS has safeguards in place to ensure that only eligible citizens receive SNAP benefits, identify those who are dishonest about their eligibility and to pursue recoupment and/or prosecution in each case.
"DCFS' dedicated unit for investigating fraud and abuse utilizes the latest in technology to identify individuals who are trying to cheat the system. Over the past two years, DCFS has worked to modernize its systems with the launch of CAFÉ, which provides greater safeguards in determining eligibility such as data mining with our federal and state partners. As a result of this and other improvements, DCFS has seen its overall payment error rate improve to 4th best in the nation and continues to see its timeliness of cases above the national average.
"The Legislative Auditor's report cited areas where potential fraud could occur and DCFS agrees with all four recommendations provided in the report that could improve identification of participation fraud. DCFS has already started working with our state and federal partners in implementing these suggestions.
"DCFS takes seriously our responsibility to be good stewards of the resources provided. DCFS is reviewing all the cases cited in the report for potential fraud and will work with authorities to prosecute those who have purposely tried to defraud the system. We will also forward any cases involving retailers to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service who monitors and investigates retailers."