A food stamp investigation can be a very stressful process, so it’s natural that those who are experiencing it have questions. How long does food stamp investigation take? What are the possible outcomes? What happens after you talk with the food stamp investigator? These are all valid questions.
It’s natural to worry, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. After all, the outcome can affect the rest of your life and your ability to feed yourself or your family. It’s a big deal and I’m sorry that you are experiencing that kind of stress.
Let’s talk about what you can expect during the food stamp investigation process.
How long does a food stamp investigation take?
The length of a food stamps investigation can range from a month to several years depending on the allegations, the complexity of the case and the amount of evidence involved. It usually only takes a few months.
There are several factors that can make a food stamp investigation take a long time, including:
- There may be a backlog of cases that need to be investigated.
- The investigator may face delays when requesting documents and records from various sources.
- The investigator may need to interview witnesses, gather photos or review video footage.
- Multiple allegations may require more time to evaluate.
- Additional fraud may be uncovered during the process, which will extend the timeline.
If the case is fairly straightforward and the evidence is easy to obtain, the case may be resolved very quickly. It just depends on the allegations, amount of evidence, and the complexity of the case.
The timeline for beginning a food stamps investigation is usually very swift. Most investigations will begin quickly. In some cases, it may be 30-60 days before an investigator begins working on your case.
Who can be investigated for food stamps fraud?
Anyone can be investigated for food stamps fraud. This includes people who receive food benefits, retailers who accept SNAP payments, and people who illegally purchase SNAP benefits for cash or other goods.
Food stamps, officially known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, are only allowed to be used by the person who receives them. Those benefits can only be used to purchase food that will be eaten by the people included in the food stamps application.
You can be investigated even if you don’t receive SNAP benefits yourself. If you purchase someone else’s benefits for cash or goods, that may still be considered food stamps fraud.
Why am I being investigated by food stamps?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a federal program funded by the government. It is the government’s responsibility to make sure that it is not being abused.
There are many reasons that can trigger a food stamps investigation. If you are being investigated, it is because someone suspects that you are breaking the rules of the program.
There are many ways to break the rules, including:
- Providing false, misleading or inaccurate information on your application
- Intentionally lying about your income or household size to get more benefits
- Receiving benefits in more than one state simultaneously
- Selling or trading your food benefits for cash or non-food items
- Purchasing items that aren’t allowed, like tobacco or alcohol
- Spending someone else’s food stamps benefits on your own food
- Stealing someone’s food benefits with a skimmer or other scamming device
It’s also possible to be investigated for reasons that don’t involve rule-breaking. For example, your account may be investigated if you accidentally received an overpayment because a state employee miscalculated your benefits. Routine audits may also lead to investigations for compliance reviews.
Other things that can trigger an investigation include a sudden or drastic change in your reported data or if someone notices inconsistencies in your paperwork. It’s also possible that the government received a tip from a friend, family member or store employee who thought something was suspicious.
The Food Stamp Investigation Process
The food stamps process varies depending on what state you live in. In preparation for this article, I interviewed a USDA Spokesperson who indicated that the federal government leaves investigations up to the states.
USDA does not require state agencies to structure their fraud investigations in a certain way or to employ a certain number of fraud investigators.USDA Spokesperson
However, every state follows a fairly similar food stamp investigation process, beginning with a report of fraud and concluding with the final actions taken against the perpetrators.
A Report of Fraud
The process typically begins with a report of fraud. Reports can be made anonymously to the state government, if the reporter wants to remain anonymous. You can usually report fraud in a variety of ways. The office may receive fraud allegations through the mail, over the phone, by fax or even online.
Most states have an office or department that is tasked with investigating fraud complaints. For example, Washington’s Office of Fraud and Accountability investigates any welfare fraud in the state of Washington. That includes fraud against Public Assistance Programs, food stamps, TANF, EBT card frauds, childcare benefits and others.
Fraud complaints may be made against clients (people who receive benefits) or vendors (people and businesses who accept benefits). Both clients and vendors can face severe penalties for food stamps fraud.
Credible reports of fraud will proceed to the next step, which is investigation.
During the initial review, the investigator will review any documentation that is easily gathered within the office. This includes analyzing your applications and reviewing your case history to determine if there anything suspicious.
For basic complaints, it is possible for the investigator to resolve the complaint at this stage. For example, if there was a clerical error or other basic mistake made in the paperwork, it should be caught during the initial review.
If the complaint is unresolved and further information is needed, the initial review will lay the groundwork for the remainder of the investigation.
During the investigation phase, the government will seek any and all relevant evidence about your case. They will likely also interview you and anyone else who may have knowledge relevant to the allegations against you.
During this phase, the investigator will gather all the available evidence and conduct interviews to get to the truth. They may analyze financial records, look at video or audio recordings, review your application and recertification interviews in greater depth, and even work with law enforcement agencies to obtain relevant information.
According to New York attorney Albert Goodwin, the investigators may gather a wide variety of evidence including:
- Audio recordings
- Address records
- Asset records
- Employment records
- Income records
- Usage records
The length and scope of the investigation will vary widely depending on the nature of the accusations, the availability of data and the complexity of the case. It generally takes several months for an investigation to complete.
Once the investigator has completed their review of the available evidence, they will make a decision on your case. The decision could find that you are innocent, accidentally guilty or intentionally guilty of the accusations against you.
After the decision is made, you should receive a letter with the decision. You should keep this letter for your records.
If the investigator finds evidence of intentional or willful fraud, the case may be referred for formal prosecution. This means that you could be taken to court. Depending on the severity of the accusations, you could potentially face fines, jail time, or restitution payments. You may also be rendered unable to get food benefits in the future. If the investigation leads to prosecution, you will be notified by legal service.
What should I do if I’m being investigated?
Most people who are being investigated find out about the investigation in a letter from the food stamps office. This letter can be very scary and stressful.
It is important to take the investigation seriously but don’t let fear lead you to making rash decisions. It is important to make sure that you protect yourself and your rights during the investigation.
The best way to do that is to reach out to legal aid or an attorney for legal guidance. An attorney can give you personalized advice and support you through the case. If you can’t afford an attorney, your local legal aid clinic may be able to assist you.
Many lawyers will advise you against speaking directly with the investigator. For example, Albert Goodwin is an attorney in New York. He wrote, “Do not contact the investigator. They are trained to get you to provide incriminating information that will be used against you in court.”
If the decision results in the loss of your benefits, you should be able to appeal that decision and request a hearing. You can do this by submitting a written appeal in accordance with the instructions in your letter. You will need to follow the next steps provided by the office. If you go this route, it may be helpful to consult with a legal aid provider.
What happens after you talk with the food stamp investigator?
It can be really unnerving to have to wait after speaking with the investigator. You may be more worried than you were before as you wait to hear the results.
You may have to wait weeks, months or even years to hear the results of your food stamps investigation. That’s because your interview with the investigator is only one piece of the evidence that will be gathered in the course of the investigation.
Among other things, the investigator will also gather evidence about your income, household size, living situation, and even your SNAP spending habits. This information will help inform their final decision on the case.
What are the possible penalties?
There are many potential outcomes for a food stamps investigation.
The investigator may find that nothing wrong has taken place and close the investigation without any negative consequences. When this happens, you will still be able to receive food benefits.
Clerical errors or other accidental mistakes could be found, which may mean that you have to pay back some of the extra money you received.
If the investigator finds evidence of intentional fraud, the consequences can be severe. The investigator can forward their findings to a prosecutor who can bring criminal charges against you. You may face fines or even jail time. The possible criminal consequences vary. In New York, a food stamps fraud conviction can carry up to 15 years of imprisonment depending on how much money was received.
FAQs about Food Stamp Investigation
Even if you’re innocent, it’s natural to be stressed when you’re being investigated. It’s a scary thing for anyone to go through. Here are some things that people have asked us about food stamp investigation.
How long does a food stamps investigation take?
The investigation will most likely take several months but it varies. Simple and straightforward cases could take only a few weeks but more complex cases can take years. It just depends on how many people are involved, what the allegations are, and how much evidence needs to be gathered.
Does food stamps investigate?
Yes, the state agencies that administer food stamps and other welfare benefits investigate fraud and other allegations of wrongdoing.
What triggers a food stamp investigation?
A food stamp investigation can be triggered in many ways. It can be triggered by inconsistencies in your paperwork, reports from other people, or suspicious spending habits.
What happens after I talk with the food stamp investigator?
After you talk with the food stamps investigator, they will continue gathering evidence until they have enough to make an informed decision about your case. It can still take months after speaking with them to get a decision.
Can I speed up a food stamps investigation?
The best way to speed up a food stamps investigation is to respond quickly to any requests for evidence. You may want to consult with an attorney prior to speaking with or submitting any paperwork.
In this article, we have answered the primary questions that people who are being investigated by the food stamps office usually have, such as how long an investigation takes, what the investigation process includes, and what you should do if you are being investigated. It is important to remember your rights, consult with legal aid, and take the investigation very seriously.