Photo ID Cards are not an Effective way to Stop Food Stamp Fraud

Monday, March 30, 2015

In an effort to fight food stamp fraud, some states are requiring and others considering that EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards used by those on assistance have a photo of the cardholder. But a new report (pdf) shows that such methods not only don’t stop fraud, they display an ignorance of how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) works.


EBT cards have long since replaced the old paper food stamp coupons. The cards work like a normal debit card with a PIN number. Each month, the card is loaded with the appropriate balance and recipients generally use the funds for their intended purpose—to put food on their tables.


There is fraud in the system, according to the Urban Institute, but it’s not the kind that would be prevented by having a photo on the cards. Generally fraud occurs when a recipient buys food with the card and then sells it or connives with a retailer to receive cash back from a purchase, which is strictly forbidden by the regulations governing the program. Some recipients even buy beverages, dump the liquid and then return the containers for deposits. In none of these scenarios would a photo on the cards stop fraud.


A key provision of SNAP is that the benefits are meant to be used by anyone in a household. Thus, although states may require there to be a photo on a card, they must allow for anyone in the cardholder’s household, even non-relatives, to use the card as well, which would negate the value of a photo for fraud prevention.


A requirement to check identification of EBT card users would also be difficult to institute. SNAP regulations don’t allow benefit recipients to be singled out by store personnel; their transactions must appear to be the same as other shoppers’.  So to check IDs of EBT cardholders, clerks would have to check everyone’s identification.


Instead, the U.S. Department of Agriculture analyzes retail transactions, looking for patterns of fraudulent behavior. One such pattern is an unusual number of even-dollar transactions (such as for exactly $50) by a retailer that takes SNAP benefits. Another sign is a beneficiary frequently requesting replacement cards.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Assessing the Merits of Photo EBT Cards in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (by Gregory B. Mills and Christopher Lowenstein, Urban Institute) (pdf)

Photo ID Cards Won’t Stop Food Stamp Fraud (by Kriston Capps, Citylab)

Food Stamp Abuse at Record Low (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Beyond Photo ID for Voting, Sen. Vitter Wants Photo ID to Buy Food with Food Stamps (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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