The arrival of a SNAP Violation Charge Letter from the USDA appears as a humble looking document delivered to you like any normal letter by UPS. Don’t be fooled. It contains either detailed allegations about a store visit, or a list of what the FSN deemed “suspicious transactions” run at your store. At first glance, it is not so different from letters that other state agencies and departments dispatch. But in reality, it is a completely unique process and mindset on the part of the USDA.
The USDA’s Goal is to Close Down Your Grocery Store
In 2013, a study conducted by the USDA indicated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) fraud was at a twenty-year high. To remedy this, the Department ramped up its fraud detection and prevention activities in two ways. (1) they increased the number of undercover investigations they conduct annually and (2) they more frequently utilize the ALERT system. If you got a SNAP Violation charge letter with documented descriptions of transactions that occurred at your store, that means that your store has been shopped by one of their undercover agents. If your SNAP Violation charge letter only came with a list of transactions attached to it such as you selling liquor, glass bongs, etc, then the Department utilized its ALERT system to red flag you.
Whatever the case may be, the USDA has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy and began permanently disqualifying as many stores as it could. Congress concurred with the Department’s position. As a result, it required by law that the USDA to crack down on SNAP violators. Compliantly, the Department is currently seeking to disqualify and suspend as many grocers as possible.
Understanding the SNAP Charge Letter
Grocers receive their SNAP violation letters via UPS overnight. The charge letters is a simple form letter. It provides details on the first page of the letter including what allegations are being brought against the proprietor of the store, The letter will spell out specifics of the disqualification the United States Department of Agriculture is interested in pursuing. These SNAP violation charges encompass the following types of cases:
SNAP Benefits Trafficking
Trafficking is basically defined as the act of exchanging of SNAP benefits for cash, drugs or weapons. Very importantly, this category does not include sale and purchase of ineligible products. There are attorneys out there that claim to practice SNAP law are unaware of the difference, but it is very important. There are two categories of trafficking cases. One is a witnessed trafficking, which carries with it specific transaction descriptions. The other kind is a data or EBT SNAP violation case. Such cases include details of transactions but no specific descriptions. The outcome of a trafficking case is permanent disqualification.
Sale of Ineligible Items
This kind of charge involves a retail store receiving SNAP benefits payments in exchange for items recipients are not allowed to buy with an EBT card. Customarily, these ineligible items include plastic cutlery, sandwich bags and soap. More grave cases involve such items as gasoline, alcohol or tobacco. Term disqualification is usually the sanction the USDA seeks in these kinds of cases. For less egregious ineligible products, the Department often seeks a six (6) month disqualification where the retailer cannot serve their SNAP customer. Grocers facing more serious cases often end up with three-to-five (3-5) year disqualifications.
Being disqualified from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (also called WIC) can lead to a disqualification from the SNAP benefits program. In these cases, the USDA normally seeks to disqualify your grocery store for three (3) years, or they may issue a permanent disqualification.
SNAP Charge Letter
What You Should NOT Say to the USDA
For the purposes of this explanation, we can handle the SNAP Violation charge letters that lay out a list of transactions and allege of SNAP trafficking. The most unwise action you take is to quickly call the USDA. Though it is usually a good idea when you get this kind of letter in the mail for people to contact the state agency to determine what’s going on, the USDA functions differently. The case analysts (that is, the individual whose name and number were in the SNAP Violation charge letter) is tasked with collecting evidence against you in relation to the charges. They present themselves to be amicable, professional people, but at the same time they can and will ask you questions and interpret your responses as that admissions of guilt.
What Not to Do with Your SNAP Violation Charge Letter:
No conversations you may have are “off the record.” Everything you say to them can and will be used against you. Customarily, if you ask a program specialist to explain to you what they’re expecting to find, they will turn around and tell you to write out an explanation for the transactions and mail it to them. Also, they will ask you to mail them anything that you believe might help them review your transactions. None of those instructions is to help you. Frankly, a quick perusal of our website will supply you much more SNAP violation advice than a conversation with the USDA.
Also, be aware that they do not negotiate accused violators. Much unlike state agencies, the Department is not in the habit of reducing charges or sanctions. The very fact that they sent you a letter,means they intend to disqualify you. Even though the SNAP Violation Charge Letter details a Civil Money Penalty, the USDA normally issues less than ten of those in any given year. More regularly, the USDA disqualifies grocery stores.
You should not acknowledge that any wrongdoing took place at your store. There are a multitude of legitimate circumstances under which their data may implicate that there’s something amiss at your store when in reality, no violations are being perpetrated at all. Until you have the chance to converse with a SNAP violation lawyer or at least review your own records, you can’t know for sure if the charges are accurate. The worst move you can make is to acknowledge an inaccurate SNAP Violation charge letter. On the contrary, you should read through our website to get more information about the different violation categories.
Also, don’t jump to accusing your employees of wrongdoing. Telling the officer that it was someone else’s doing will backfire on you. The SNAP rules are clear that even if it was your parking lot attendant who committed the trafficking offence, you (the owner) are nonetheless responsible. In addition, there’s a fair chance that your staff members have violated no rules. Furthermore, stating that you were not present in the store can be used against you by the USDA.
Get assistance in crafting and dispatching your response. Most responses that are sent directly by the shop owner who was charged are perceived skeptically by the USDA. In a case analysis I recently read, the analyst said “of course the store would deny the charges in order to keep their EBT business.” They hold the belief that your response must be embedded with doctored information or that something was concealed. Hiring a SNAP Violation professional can give you the edge to avoid common mishaps. If you your EBT business is important to your bottom line, it’s worth more to pay to have your case professionally defended. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing your case due to errors of inexperience.
Recommendations for Your Response
We strongly suggest that you hire a professional to handle these matters, but should you choose to represent yourself, here are some recommendations:
Be as specific as possible. The program specialist who is reviewing your case has never visited your store. They are not familiar with your customers, or their spending patterns. The Department needs to get a better understanding of how you operate your store and what prevention measures you already have in place to prevent SNAP violations. Definitely include as much information (and pictures) as you can in your reply.
If in the SNAP Violation charge letter you are accused of a violation, interview your employees. After that is done, if it turns out that none of them perpetrated a violation, then let the agency know that.
Never guess about the identity of households. If the USDA sent you a data-driven SNAP Violation charge letter, it will include a list of transactions. Don’t try to make guesses as to which household made which purchases. If you are 100% sure who it was, then you can tell the agency. But if you guess incorrectly, the agents will think you are lying and you will lose credibility with them.
In the event that you provided invoices for your inventory, include them for the Review Period. The review period is the date range of transactions that you see in the attachments. Only providing selected ranges, then they will reject all of them.
We Can Help You Respond to a SNAP Violation Charge Letter
Our law firm has represented many retail store owners since 2013 in cases of SNAP violations. We have more experience than any other SNAP firm or attorney in the United States, and our fees are affordable. If you are in receipt of a charge letter and you have questions, or if would like a free consultation, we are available to converse with you at your convenience 7 days a week. The most rapid way to get a hold of us is through our online intake form.
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