BOSTON (CBS) - An I-Team investigation uncovers fraudulent use of taxpayer funded benefits intended for the neediest of Massachusetts residents. We are talking about Electronic Benefits Transfer Cards or EBT for short. The I-Team discovered millions of those benefit dollars are being spent by people who don't even live in Massachusetts.
EBT cards are used to distribute both federal food benefits, what used to be called food stamps, and cash benefits paid for by the state. For the people who need them, these benefits are critical. "I've been out of work. I need to eat," one EBT cardholder told us at a small shop in Everett. "It puts food on the table for me and my son," a young mother said. "Without it, I wouldn't have a lot of food."
But the I-Team found millions of dollars in these welfare benefits are being spent more than a thousand miles away in Florida. The I-Team obtained records from the state Department of Transitional Assistance, the agency that oversees these benefits. Those records show that in 2013 $4.5 million in benefits were spent in Florida. The documents showed about $202,000 in EBT benefits were spent in the Palm Beach area, $320,000 were spent in the Miami area, $387,000 in the Tampa area and over $1 million in welfare dollars were spent last year by Massachusetts residents in the Orlando area.
These numbers were shocking to the legitimate EBT card holders we spoke to in Everett. "I can see it being used in New York or something, but in Florida? That's crazy," one man told us.
Taunton State Representative Shaunna O'Connell has spent a lot of time on Beacon Hill trying to fight EBT abuse and fraud. "It's not just Florida," she said. "It's in Hawaii, California, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, that people are spending their taxpayer EBT money."
According to Stacey Monahan, the Commissioner of the Department of Transitional Assistance, this out-of-state spending is a very small percentage of the overall benefits. "This is something that's totally permissible, you are allowed to use your benefits out of state," she said.
When we asked her if that $1 million dollar figure in the Orlando area surprised her, she said, "Not any more that they pop up in the Maryland area."
But the I-Team has learned that the state actually is concerned about this out-of-state spending and has recently started cracking down on the problem. We found that since October of last year, DTA has shut down the EBT accounts of 3,457 people who the agency determined were actually living out-of-state and collecting Massachusetts benefits. 871 of those cases were in Florida. Before that, the state closed 0 cases of people with long-term out-of-state spending.
"We've really amped up our capacity to look at what's going on," Monahan said. But former inspector general Greg Sullivan says the state simply is not looking hard enough. He believes too many people are getting benefits who don't really qualify. "You would think that in a highly sophisticated state that we would have a highly sophisticated anti-fraud program. But let me tell you, we don't," he said.
Commissioner Monahan says the state has stepped up its use of technology to track the scofflaws. But, Representative O'Connell wants to make it even easier by restricting EBT use to just border states. Her attempt to pass that bill failed last fall, but she's vowing to try again. "It really frustrates people to know they are supporting their family and paying for others who are collecting fraudulent benefits," she said.
It's equally frustrating for the people who depend on the help from the state. We asked one EBT recipient how often he used his EBT card in Florida. "Never," he said. "Never, ever."
So how do they crack these cases? The state monitors spending and if your state-issued cash benefits are used out-of-state for more than 60 days, you are automatically shut off. For federal food benefits, you have 90 days.
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