Essex County, New Jersey, Woman Admits Role In Illegal Food Stamps Scheme
NEWARK, N.J. – An Essex County, New Jersey, woman admitted today that she took part in a food stamps fraud scheme, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced.
Maria Teresa Venegas, 25, of Newark, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez to an information charging her with one count of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit fraud.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:
From November 2011 to March 2018, Venegas was the owner of Jenny’s Deli, a small grocery store in Newark, which was authorized to accept benefits provided by SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retail food stores approved for participation in SNAP may sell food in exchange for SNAP benefits, but may not exchange SNAP benefits for cash. Venegas allegedly exchanged more than $885,000 in SNAP benefits for cash between 2011 and 2018.
Every SNAP recipient receives an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, similar to a debit card, to use to make purchases. Every retailer authorized to accept SNAP benefits has an EBT terminal. Food purchases are made by swiping the card at the terminal. After the customer enters a Personal Identification Number (PIN), the EBT terminal verifies the PIN, determines whether the customer’s account balance is sufficient to cover the proposed transaction, and informs the retailer whether the transaction should be authorized or denied. The amount of the purchase is deducted electronically from the SNAP benefits reserved for the customer and the purchase amount is credited to the retailer’s designated bank account.
In addition to the high volume of SNAP benefits redemptions for Jenny’s Deli, indicating fraud, law enforcement agents verified the fraudulent exchange of SNAP benefits for cash through the use of an undercover law enforcement agent who engaged in approximately 20 “purchases” at Jenny’s Deli where she exchanged money for SNAP benefits.
The SNAP fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, or twice the gross pecuniary gain/loss. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2019.
U.S. Attorney Carpenito credited special agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Office of Inspector General, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Bethanne M. Dinkins, with the investigation leading to today’s guilty plea.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason S. Gould of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division in Newark.
Defense counsel: Linda Foster Esq., Assistant Federal Public Defender (Newark)
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