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Originally published Friday, February 21, 2014 at 9:41 PM

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4 arrested for possible trafficking of food benefits

Police in Seattle have arrested four people in an investigation into the trafficking and fraudulent use of government-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Police arrested four people and seized more than $400,000 Wednesday while investigating what they say were trafficking rings involving Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at several locations, including a market in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.

During a part of the investigation, undercover officers sold EBT benefits, the modern version of food stamps, to a woman in her 60s, for approximately 50 cents on the dollar, according to the Seattle Police Department.

The woman bought food at various stores and told undercover officers it would be resold to unidentified Seattle restaurants, police said in an item posted Friday on its blog. The woman was arrested Thursday.

Undercover officers also sold EBT benefits for cash — 50 cents on the dollar — at a market in the 1000 block of South Jackson Street, police said.

Twice during such transactions, the associate or employee sold the undercover officer what they suspect is rock cocaine in exchange for EBT benefits.

Officers executed eight search warrants for two trafficking rings, and in addition to the four arrests, they seized more than $427,000 from bank accounts, the market and a suspect’s home.

The people arrested have not been charged. Police said they could face a number of counts, including food-stamp trafficking and money laundering.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office will open a case with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to look at the possibility of federal charges, Seattle police said.

EBT cards have largely replaced paper food stamps. Washington residents who receive food assistance get a “Quest Card” — which is essentially a debit card used to buy food. There are restrictions on what sort of items can be purchased with the cards. For example, they cannot be used to buy alcohol, tobacco, paper products, soap or pet supplies. They also cannot legally be used to get cash.

In addition to criminal charges, the unauthorized use of EBT cards can result in disqualification from receiving food benefits for anywhere from one year to life, according to the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

“The investigation revealed the extent of the illegal trafficking of EBT benefits and the great lengths criminals will go to in order to steal enormous amounts of money from the hardworking taxpayers and citizens of our community,” police spokesman Jeff Kappel said in a news release.

In addition to the Seattle Police Department, investigating agencies include DSHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Paige Cornwell: 206-464-2530 or pcornwell@seattletimes.com



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