Crime

2 charged with $200,000 food stamp fraud

Two Tacoma store owners were charged Friday with registering more than $200,000 in fraudulent food stamp transactions over an 18-month period.
Two Tacoma store owners were charged Friday with registering more than $200,000 in fraudulent food stamp transactions over an 18-month period. Thinkstock.com

Two Tacoma store owners were charged Friday with registering more than $200,000 in fraudulent food stamp transactions over an 18-month period.

Ibeth Cano, 53, was charged in Pierce County Superior Court with leading organized crime, unlawful trafficking in food stamps, first-degree theft and three counts of witness tampering. Co-owner Guillermina Coronado Miranda, 44, was charged with unlawful trafficking in food stamps and first-degree theft.

The pair are scheduled to be arraigned Sept. 8.

According to charging documents:

Investigators from the Department of Social and Health Services, which administers federal food benefits in the state, noticed some troubling trends at the Carniceria Apatzingan at 2015 S. 96th St. in Tacoma in July 2015.

The convenience store had recorded multiple $1,000-plus transactions on EBT cards and had also seen transactions staggered within a 24-hour period that nearly drained accounts within days of them receiving deposits. About 25 percent of the transactions were conducted by people that reported to DSHS that they were homeless. Many transactions had transactions that ended with even dollar amounts.

Plus, two other convenience stores within a block of the Carniceria Apatzingan were reporting drastically different EBT transactions, both in size and frequency.

All of those indicated the store was engaged in widescale food stamp fraud, the DSHS investigators determined.

By June 2016, DSHS investigators partnered with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to investigate the store.

Two months later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture went to cancel Carniceria Apatzingan’s listing in its Food and Nutrition Service. But the store had already canceled its listing. The Sheriff’s Department terminated its investigation.

Apatzingan Market, operating out of the same storefront with Cano and Coronado Miranda still as its owners, applied for and received the Food and Nutrition Service listing.

In the two weeks after the new listing, the same patterns emerged, including a $500 transaction. Through October and November, investigators saw one $999.50 transaction and other high-dollar ones, often in the first 15 days of the month, when food stamp benefits are loaded onto the cards.

The Sheriff’s Department reopened the investigation.

In December, DSHS investigators monitored the EBT transactions in real time on several dates while deputies conducted surveillance.

“During the surveillance operations, neither the DSHS investigator nor the deputy ever saw any more than a handful of people who appeared to be grocery shopping at the store,” prosecutors wrote. “Most patrons left the Apatzingan Market carrying a small bag containing a small number of items or they left empty-handed.”

Meanwhile, the convenience store two doors down often saw customers leaving with bags full of items.

Of 44 surveilled transactions that were greater than $75 or ended in even amounts — two indicators of trafficking — 32 were with customers who were in the store for brief periods of time and who left with one item or nothing, even for $100-plus transactions. Five more transactions never saw a person enter the store.

A sheriff’s deputy and a USDA special agent both attempted to trade EBT benefits for cash, but they were rebuffed.

On Dec. 20, deputies and DSHS investigators served a search warrant at the store, finding the grocery portion of the store was five shelves along one wall and two free-standing racks. Much of the shelving was empty and about 20 percent of the products had expired, which meant that there was little turnover of product.

Both Cano and Coronado Miranda spoke with investigators and denied they were laundering EBT benefits. Cano said she was allowing customers to run a tab and pay it off when their benefits were distributed, but Coronado Miranda offered no explanation about the suspicious transactions.

Investigators found no evidence of credit accounts, such as a ledger or notebook, but they did find a sign on the counter that said the store did not allow purchases on credit.

DSHS mailed letters to the 39 people involved in fraudulent transactions at Apatzingan Market. Seven people agreed to meet with investigators.

Two respondents said they purchased on store credit.

A third said she traded her benefits for cash, but used an intermediary to conduct the transactions.

A fourth used an intermediary originally, then did the transactions herself when she realized some money was missing. She told investigators Cano told her to tell them the store operated on credit. That woman also told investigators the few actual EBT purchases at Apatzingan Market were so rare that they stood out in her mind.

The fifth and sixth women interviewed both said they sold their benefits to Cano. Both of them said Cano said to deny knowing her if investigators came calling.

A seventh woman said she had sold her benefits for a year to the market every month so she could fund her drug habit.

All five who talked said they got half of the money in cash that their cards were run for.

All told, USDA investigators estimated the fraud cost taxpayers $215,000 from July 2015-Decemeber 2016.

Kenny Ocker: 253-597-8627, @KennyOcker

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