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      Curbing Bridge Card abuse

      How much does the average family spend on food each week?

      ??We had plenty. We had an abundance. Much more than I spend now,?? Tanya Cox said.

      Today, Cox feeds her family of six on about $100 a week. That??s about $50 less than what she spent when she was on food stamps a few years ago.

      ??What I found was that we had a lot of money for food and we did not have any money for toothpaste, shampoo, laundry soap, toilet paper.??

      Her Bridge Card allowed her to spend $600 to $700 a month, but only on food.

      Cox said this pitfall in the system is often the gateway to food stamp abuse.

      April Carlson, a former Kroger cashier, said, ??Some of them would have someone standing behind them would give them the cash.??

      Cash to buy household items or other banned merchandise such as tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets.

      ??I??ve seen many a time people had their kids with them while they??re doing it,?? Carlson said. She said roughly four out of every 10 customers she checked out cheated the Bridge Card system and often got away with it.

      ??You really can??t deny them, if they know the pin number,?? Carlson said. But the law makes it very clear.

      ??It??s not for you to be trading on the open market, it??s not for you to be selling,?? Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said.

      In fact, Leyton is currently prosecuting three business owners accused of running their restaurant and catering business with fraudulent bridge cards.

      ??That fraud has a cost to it that has to be paid out by the legitimate taxpayers of Genesee County and of the state of Michigan,?? Leyton said.

      Food stamp fraud costs U.S. taxpayers roughly $750 million each year.

      The Office of the Inspector General launched a division to crack down on this kind of fraud but, Leyton said, ??The better way is to go out there ahead of time and find ways to keep people from being on Bridge cards in the first place.??

      And just as important, Tanya Cox said, is to help people get off the program. For her, it wasn??t easy.

      ??I mean how do you turn away $600 of free food???

      As the associate pastor at her church, she now advises other families how to live resourcefully on the Bridge Card.

      ??That??s what the system is for. It??s supposed to temporarily help you and assist you to be able to get up and get out,?? Cox said.

      And trying to go around the system has consequences that will affect not only bridge card users, but all taxpayers in the long run.

      If you suspect that a client is trafficking his/her food assistance, fill out this complaint form to report it.

      If you suspect that a business is buying food assistance for cash or contraband such as drugs or weapons, or non-food items, please fill out the business client form to report it.

      To report food assistance fraud by phone, call 800-222-8558.