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Just a Thought — Electronic benefits transfer cards appear ripe for fraudulent picking

Just a Thought — Electronic benefits transfer cards appear ripe for fraudulent picking

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2008 10:10 pm
By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter

 A little bee, a pesky question, keeps buzzing around in my head. Why don’t cashiers ask for identification when a customer buys groceries with food stamps? Every time I buy a pack of cigarettes I have to show identification. But anyone with one of those EBT — electronic benefits transfer — cards can take over $100 worth of groceries to a check-out register and be waved right on through, no questions asked. An EBT card, featuring a spiffy graphic of an American eagle and made of plastic like a regular credit card, is the modern version of what used to be actual stamps distributed by the federal government. With the advent of high-falutin’ computer technology, the stamps in their actual form were discontinued. Benefits are transferred electronically. Yet the name “food stamps” remains in popular use. I focus on food stamps in this column because of a recent encounter at a local grocery store. It makes me wonder about who’s in charge of the food stamp train. It makes me wonder if maybe they’re asleep at the wheel. Let me preach on, as the man on the radio says. I was standing in the check-out line. The woman ahead of me had quite a load of grocery goodies, stuff I certainly could not afford. Expensive steaks and other high on the hog cuts of meat. Several varieties of cheese. Canned goods galore. These, and more. It looked like she was going to feed an army. As her groceries were being placed on the conveyor belt, I gave her the once-over, visually speaking, of course. She was well-dressed in what I suppose the girls call a dress suit. Her hair was coifed to perfection and her nails were precisely manicured. Well, the cashier finally finished tabulating the woman’s groceries, whereupon the woman reached into her fancy purse and took out an EBT card. The only sound in the place was that of my jaw hitting the conveyor line. The cashier processed the card and handed the woman a cash register receipt about a foot long. Her purchase came to well over $100. She signed the receipt, handed it to the cashier and went away with a fellow who bagged her groceries. I couldn’t help wondering whether the food stamp account was in that woman’s name or if she was using one that belonged to someone else. Or did she “buy” the card from someone? A lot of scenarios came to mind. In a recent wire services story, Associated Press writer Tom Breen told us that one in 10 Americans are now receiving federal food stamp benefits, “an all-time high that’s likely to increase as the economy worsens and more people are out of work.” For information about the food stamp situation in Tennessee, I consulted the Tennessee Department of Human Services Web site. It told me 385,000 families in this state are enrolled in the food stamp program at an annual cost of $80 million. The program’s rules and regulations state: • There is no specific age limit to receive food stamps. • An applicant must be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. National or a qualified alien to receive food stamps. • Some legal immigrants are ineligible to receive food stamps, “however, dependents of an ineligible legal alien are often eligible.” (This one blew my mind.) Breen also told us that, nationally, more than 31.5 million people received food stamp benefits in September, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “That’s the highest total recorded, surpassing the old record of 27.4 million in 1994,” he wrote. Do I object to the food stamp program? No. Our society prides itself on taking care of its own. But must we be loose as a drunken goose in control and administration? The food stamp program is a good thing, a manifestation of our distinctly American spirit of noblesse oblige — an obligation to help our fellow man. Would one be so cold-hearted as to turn a cold shoulder to the hungry? No, not us Americans. But lots of places in the world would, and do, ignore the needs of their own people. We not only help our own, we help those in far-flung places. I know this from experience. Back in the 1960s I saw American GIs help the Vietnamese in many ways, including feeding children and donating money to orphanages. We, as a society, have always extended a helping hand. Unfortunately, there are parasites willing and waiting to take advantage of us. The least we can do to interrupt fraud and abuse is require food stamp users to show identification when they use the EBT card. Published in The Messenger 12.19.08

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