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South Jersey Grocery Store Owner Admits $260,000 Food Stamp Scam

NJ SNAP
NJ SNAP Photo Credit: nj.gov

A Camden grocery store owner admitted trading drugs and cash for government-issued debit cards that he and several accomplices used to steal $260,000 in benefits intended for families in need.

Luciano Estevez, 50, pleaded guilty on Wednesday via teleconference after federal agents caught him and three of the others in a sting, U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, allows users to buy necessary groceries.

Although exchanging SNAP cards for cash is illegal, Estevez and his accomplices conducted 43 deals worth $40,500 with two sellers who turned out to be informants, Carpenito said.

They then used hundreds of SNAP cards to buy groceries in bulk from large national superstores that they turned around and resold to grocery and convenience stores at a tidy profit, the U.S. attorney said.

All told, about $150,000 in government funds were illegally accessed in the scam, he said.

Estevez also “unlawfully procured an EBT terminal registered to a superstore in Philadelphia…to use at his small grocery store in Camden, which was not registered as a lawful SNAP merchant in the USDA program,” Carpenito said.

That scheme netted Estevez $110,000 in SNAP funds, the U.S. attorney said.

Federal complaints filed last August in U.S. District Court in Camden charged Estevez and co-defendants Jose Garcia, 52, of Camden, Octavio Rodriguez, 51, of Pennsauken and Juan Melo, 56, of Woodlynne with participating in the conspiracy and defrauding SNAP.

Melo was the first to strike a deal with the government, pleading guilty to his role in the scheme on April 28.

U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb scheduled Melo’s sentencing for Sept. 8 and Estevez’s sentencing for Sept. 11.

Carpenito credited special agents of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Office of Inspector General Northeast Region, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General, the FBI’s Philadelphia Field Office South Jersey Resident Agency and the Camden County Police Department.

Handling the case for the government is Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina O. Hud of Carpenito’s Criminal Division in Camden.

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U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito explains how SNAP works:

“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.”

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