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The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has put in effect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in an effort to assist every US household to purchase nutritious foods. Most supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmacies accept SNAP benefits though the use of EBT card (Electronic Benefit Transfer).

Unfortunately, most of the eligible SNAP individuals reside in low-income districts, communities with little or no access to big chain stores and supermarkets. They make their purchases from the local grocery store. Due to this, an increased number of grocery store owners have applied and have been qualified to accept SNAP benefits with the use of EBT card. Being an EBT card grocery store owner can certainly contribute to your business revenue and increase your clientele. On the other hand, though, it can create some unforeseen problems.

SNAP Violations
It is very important for the grocery owner to know and at all costs apply all the rules and regulations that apply in the SNAP. Owners must make sure that any employee at the store, especially the cashier has been trained accordingly and prior to dealing with, or even touching the EBT terminal. SNAP violations can happen in many ways, unknowingly or even intentionally and the penalties can be heavy for your grocery store.

The most common and serious violation is SNAP benefit trafficking. It occurs in many different ways. It involves the EBT card holder, the store owner and in some cases an employee. Trafficking is the act when an EBT holder sells the benefits for cash to food retailers for less value. It also occurs when SNAP benefits are used for the purchase of ineligible items or even drugs, weapons or in exchange of other services and assistance.
There are circumstances an employee over charges the customer for an amount he did not make. In return the client is given cash instead. In other cases, the EBT customer may purchase an item, then return it and ask for cash refund.

SNAP violation is also considered when a customer purchases items that are rendered ineligible such as alcohol, tobacco, hot/prepared food, household supplies such as detergents, etc.

SNAP violation may occur unintentionally by the owner or an employee in an effort to assist the customer. That is allowing a customer who does not have enough benefits in his card balance to buy now and charge him later. Another violation is making transactions manually, entering the EBT card and PIN by hand if the client does not have it at the moment. Another example is accepting the EBT from an individual who is not officially authorized to do so.

Operating your grocery store in a low-income neighborhood, you have close contact with your customers, mostly senior citizens. Your actions may mean well, in an effort to help your clients have a meal on their table, you overlook some strict regulations imposed by the FNS (Food and Nutrition Service). Although such violations do not cost the government any money, as long as the benefits are not used as USDA’s intentions are, you are committing fraud.

Violation Letter
As soon as the USDA is informed of any alleged violations you have committed they will send you a SNAP Violation Letter. You must open it immediately and read what you are accused of. See all the attached documents they provide to support the allegation(s). As you only have ten days to prepare your answer and respond back, it is advisable to contact your lawyer.

As a grocery store owner, once you are accepted in the SNAP program it is urgent to have an experienced lawyer especially on SNAP issues. So when you receive the “Violation Letter”, consult your lawyer. Do not try to communicate with the FNS yourself, you may make matters worse and more difficult to resolve as all communication is recorded and can be used against you at any future time. Lawyers know what and how to say it, they know and understand the rules and regulations far better than you think you do.

There is a variety of penalties USDA may impose:
• Civil Money Penalty (CMP), the amount is based on the violation, the number of times it may have been repeated. But it can come up to a big amount which at all times is preferable to pay so as not to jeopardize your store’s future.

• A Suspension, a temporary disqualification from EBT use.

• In the worst case a Permanent Disqualification. Not being able to have access to EBT terminal ever again. This has very serious, irreversible impact on your grocery store and your future as a business man. However, this can be prevented if you qualify, in other words you have a good and effective compliance policy.

At all cases, your solution is a strong defense, only your lawyer can provide. Money spent on lawyer’s fees is money well-spent, an investment to secure your business and your reputation.

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