BANGOR, Maine — Bangor police were called to Shaw’s grocery store Thursday night to collect information about a regularly occurring food stamp scam that recently was dubbed “water dumping” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA has taken a stand on water dumping — buying beverages with food stamps, dumping the liquid and returning the empties for cash — and in June proposed a new rule that could disqualify recipients who engage in the practice.
The USDA, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, has proposed updating the definition of trafficking — a disqualifying action — to include the stealing of benefits.
The federal agency was to stop collecting public comments on the proposed rule at midnight Friday.
“At a time when so many Americans are coping with economic hardship, we need to do everything possible to ensure that all SNAP benefits are used only as intended — to help struggling individuals and families put healthy food on the table,” Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary of agriculture, said in June.
Concannon is a former commissioner of health and human services in Maine.
While the federal agency works to complete the new water dumping rules, state prosecutors and law enforcement agencies in Maine already are working together, Bangor police Sgt. Allen Hayden said Friday.
Bangor police went to the Shaw’s store on Main Street around 7:15 p.m. Thursday to deal with a man buying bottled water and dumping it so he could return the empty bottles for cash, the sergeant said.
The 58-year-old man used SNAP funds allocated to him to purchase the water and pay for the bottle deposit. The man, who did not have an address listed in the police file, was not arrested but his information was sent to the Maine Attorney General’s Office, Hayden said.
“The AG’s office has asked us to help track this,” the sergeant said. “They’re looking to see if it’s a violation.”
State prosecutors asked in January that water dumping reports be forwarded, Hayden said.
“Our welfare fraud prosecutor has reached out to local law enforcement and has encouraged them to report fraud to the AG’s office,” Brenda Kielty, special assistant in the Attorney General’s Office, said Friday. “It’s part of our larger effort to combat welfare benefit fraud.”
A provision under the 2008 Farm Act specifically forbids the use of SNAP funds to get cash by buying products for the container’s redemption value, but until recently no penalties existed.
Maine and 10 other states require a bottle deposit ranging from 5 to 15 cents on recyclable beverage containers.
The SNAP program provides funding to feed more 44 million people each month across the country, half of whom are children, the USDA website states. In Maine during 2010, more than $348 million in SNAP funds were distributed to more than 113,230 households.
The Bangor Daily News put a spotlight on water dumping in August 2010 after a pair of men purchased $86.79 in bottled water from the Shaw’s in Bangor, dumped it out behind the store and returned the empties for $24.
Store employees at the time described the practice of water dumping as common, a sentiment that is shared by police.
“It’s something that has been going on for a while now,” Hayden said.
The man who was questioned on Thursday night in Bangor “claims he was doing it to get gas,” the sergeant said.
To comment on the proposed rule, go to www.regulations.gov and search under proposed rules with the regulation identifier number 0584-AD97. The comment period was to end at 11:59 p.m. Friday.
Those who see a misuse or waste of federal SNAP funds can call the national fraud hot line at 1-800-424-9121.