Arizona is hiring three people to crack down on a particular kind of food stamp fraud.
Steve Meissner, spokesman for the Department of Economic Security, said Friday the team, including two sworn peace officers, will be looking for people who are legally eligible for the benefits, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but are improperly using the electronic debit card which replaced the paper stamps years ago.
"There's a number of things you can't use the card for,'' Meissner said. "We're going to use every tool in our toolbox to find people who are trying to do things like buy cigarettes, buy alcohol or convert it to cash.''
Meissner said existing anti-fraud activities are aimed at denying benefits to those who are not eligible. He said those efforts saved $9.4 million for the federal government, which pays for the program, during 2008 and 2009.
Finding this kind of fraud, he said, will take different tactics. But Meissner would provide no details.
"We don't want to be too specific about our investigative methods for obvious reasons,'' he said.
"But we're going to be using a lot of different methods,'' Meissner continued. "And that was why we wanted to make sure at least two of the people were sworn peace officers, with some investigative skills.''
He noted that, for this kind of fraud, it really takes two: the beneficiary who has the card and the retailer who agrees to accept the card as payment for ineligible items. But Meissner said there is evidence this is occurring, at least on a national level.
"There have been operations in other states where they have found people who will go in and turn over their card and leave with a 12-pack of beer and some cash in hand,'' he said. "And the value of the card stays with the retailer'' who can convert that to cash reimbursement from the government.
He acknowledged there is no hard evidence that is occurring here. But Meissner said that may be simply because the state, until now, has not been looking for it.
Meissner said that, despite the fact that investigations will focus on retailers, the anti-fraud program has the backing of the Arizona Food Marketing Alliance. It represents the major grocery chains and convenience stores.
Overall, Meissner said slightly more than one million Arizonans are collecting food stamp benefits.
The average payment per recipient is $101 a month, with the typical household allotment about $294.
Overall, the federal government gave out more than $131.3 million in a 12-month period.
Meissner said this is good for more than those who get the benefits, as money spent helps stimulate the Arizona economy.