When Portland Police Bureau officers interviewed Nasr Iskander about the puzzling number of high-dollar transactions involving supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) cards at his Shell station located at 16331 S.E. Powell Blvd, Iskander offered a novel explanation.
"The store owner claimed he sold a lot of high-end cheeses," an advisory report released by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson's audits division today says. "He said his customers would place the slices of high-end cheese in their pockets before walking out of the store, and that's why they appeared to be empty handed after spending over $100 in SNAP benefits at his store."
In fact, Iskander's mini-mart was so small it didn't contain a single shopping cart and offered only six hand-held baskets. Yet auditors found that one out of every eight SNAP transactions in the store was for an amount greater than $100. At gas stations in the rest of the state, only one in 6,000 transactions is greater than $100.
Iskander was sentenced earlier this year to 22 months in prison for SNAP (also known as food stamps) fraud and the new audit reveals that the case began with software the secretary of state's audits division began using in 2013.
The software allows state officials to easily determine where there are unusual concentrations of SNAP-card usage and where there are stores to which people travel unusual distances.
The scam that Iskandr and other dishonest merchants employ is creating a bogus transaction in which the merchant, rather than selling the cardholder food, gives the cardholder 50 cents in cash then claims a dollar in reimbursement from the state. (Eight of Iskandr's customers were banned from the SNAP program for life after the audits division blew the whistle on them; another six were banned for a year.)
The report also highlighted a tiny Klamath Falls meat market called Carniceria Mi Pueblo.
"This store had an average SNAP transaction amount that was significantly
higher than many large chain stores, like Walmart or WinCo," auditors found.
"In some instances, cardholders would walk out with alcohol or
methamphetamine instead of cash." (SNAP cards aren't supposed to be used for either substance. A total of 44 of the store's customers were banned from SNAP benefits for life. Eight others got one-year bans.)
Auditors aren't sure how prevalent SNAP fraud is in Oregon. "The SNAP trafficking rate has fallen significantly over the last two decades, from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent in the 2006 to 2008 timeframe (the most recent data available)," the report says, citing federal statistics.
The good news: an improving economy has led to a sharp decline in the number of Oregonians who qualify for SNAP.