By Jim Schoettler | Jacksonville.com
Four Jacksonville store clerks were among 21 people arrested in a statewide food stamp fraud sweep, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced this morning.
Store owners and clerks from Miami to Pensacola were busted during “Operation Cash Exchange,” a 10-week probe designed to combat public-assistance fraud.
The investigation targeted retailers accused of illegally handing out primarily cash from government-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer cards. The cards are authorized only for the purchase of approved food products, the FDLE said.
People who own or work for the targeted stores stole about $3.5 million in the past year, the FDLE said.
The FDLE identified those arrested in Northeast Florida as Meaza Tilahun, 38, and Zewedeneh Kassa, 41, who worked at Ethio Shell in Jacksonville; and Assefa Abegaze, 58, and Yeshe Tefera, 47, who worked at the M&Y Food Store in Jacksonville. They are all charged with bank fraud, scheme to defraud and public assistance fraud.
During the investigation, undercover “operatives” visited convenience stores, small groceries and gas stations and used EBT cards to get cash and some other items not allowed under the program. Store owners and clerks completed the transactions showing a legal purchase, but then gave out cash and kept some for themselves, the FDLE said. Few food items were purchased.
The FDLE said more arrests are expected. The Florida Lottery also said it has suspended its contracts with the retailers.
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