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SNAP Charging Letter – What Not to Say to the USDA

How not to respond to a SNAP charging letterSNAP Charging Letter

A SNAP Charging Letter from the USDA looks simple enough when you receive it from UPS.  There are either specific allegations about a store visit, or a list of categories for “suspicious transactions” your store has run.  In appearance, it isn’t much different from what other state agencies and departments send out.  But in practice, it is a completely different process and a different mindset on the part of the USDA.

The USDA Wants to Shut Down Your Business

In 2013, the USDA conducted a study that indicated SNAP fraud was at a twenty year high.  To fix this, the Department stepped up its fraud detection and prevention efforts in two areas: (1) an increase in undercover investigations and (2) an increase in utilization of the ALERT system.  If you received a SNAP charging letter with written transaction descriptions, then your store has been shopped by an undercover agent.  If your SNAP charging letter has just a list of transactions attached to it, then the Department utilized its ALERT system.

In either case, the USDA decided to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy and start permanently disqualifying as many stores as it could.  Congress agreed with the Department’s approach.  So by law, it required the USDA to report to Congress no later than September 30th, 2017, to report on the program’s effectiveness.  Accordingly, the Department is now out to disqualify and suspend as many stores as it can so that it’s reporting numbers will be positive.

What Not to Tell the USDA

For purposes of this exercise, I will address SNAP charging letters that set out a list of transactions and accuse your store of trafficking.  The worst thing you can do is to immediately call the USDA.  Though it is always good with state agencies to call the investigating agent to determine what’s going on, the USDA works differently.  The case analysts (the person whose name and number you received in the SNAP charging letter) is there to collect evidence against you.  They tend to be very nice, professional people, but they will ask you questions and interpret things that you may say as admissions of guilt.

What Not to Do:

  1. There are no conversations “off the record.”  Everything you tell them can/will be used against you.
  2. They will not negotiate with you.  Unlike state agencies, the Department is not willing to reduce their charge to a fine or a warning.  If they sent you a letter, they want to disqualify you.
  3. Do not acknowledge that anything wrong has happened at your store.  There are a myriad of legitimate reasons why their data would indicate that there’s something wrong at your store when there are no violations present.  Until you have the opportunity to consult with a SNAP violation attorney, or look through your own records, you can’t tell if the charges are accurate.  The worst thing you can do is acknowledge an inaccurate SNAP charging letter.
  4. Don’t accuse your employees of wrongdoing.  This is not an area of law where telling the officer that it was someone else’s fault will work.  The SNAP regulations are clear that even if your parking lot attendant commits trafficking, you the owner are still responsible.  Additionally, there’s a decent chance that none of your employees have violated the rules.
  5. Seek help in creating your response.  Most responses that are done by the charged store are viewed skeptically by the USDA.  In one case analysis I read, the analyst stated “of course the store would deny the charges in order to keep their EBT business.”  There is a belief that your response contains doctored the information, or is hiding something.  Hiring a professional (with experience in SNAP charging letters) can give you insight to avoid the pitfalls.  If you value your EBT business, it’s worth more to pay to have the cases professionally defended, than run the risk of losing the case because of easy mistakes.

We Can Help You Respond

If you have any questions, or would like a free consultation to go over your case, we are available to speak to you whenever it may be convenient for you.  The fastest way (7 days a week) to contact us is through our online intake form.  You may also call us Monday through Friday at (813) 228-0658.