INDIANAPOLIS -- Tax dollars are used to pay for food for low-income families, but hundreds of thousands of dollars are misused every year, assisted by some stores willing to break the law to sell people anything on the shelves.
Food stamp funds are doled out through plastic debit cards, which can include funds to buy other things.
More: Do you have information about food stamp misuse? E-mail Us
For the purpose of this story, Call 6's Rafael Sanchez focused only on cards that just had money intended to be used to purchase food.
In a hidden camera investigation, 6News found central Indiana stores cheating the system.
At a Marathon station at 34th Street and Keystone Avenue, a clerk told 6News' undercover shopper that it was OK to use food stamps to purchase gas.
The shopper also was able to purchase items not on the federally-approved list for food stamps, including a pack of cigarettes, diapers and motor oil, for a total charge of $31.81, higher than the approximately $23 other customers would pay for the same items.
Neighborhood residents told 6News that they pay more than the ticketed price when using food stamps, even though federal rules explicitly prohibit that practice.
Shoppers are supposed to use the card to buy only food items, such as eggs, milk and fruit. Gasoline, alcohol and cigarettes are not supposed to be permitted purchases.
A second store also allowed the shopper to misuse the card. At Best Price Dollar and Food, the clerk rang up potato chips, diapers, cigarettes and toilet paper, but the clerk warned that there was an additional charge for using the card.
"The only thing, I'm going to charge you extra is that one," the clerk said. "I'm going to charge $4.99. $3.99 is the cost, but using the card, I got to make (inaudible)."
The shopper was charged $17.68 for items that cost other customers $12.98.
6News took the issue to the Family and Social Services Administration, which manages nearly $800 million to feed 300,000 Hoosiers.
"When people commit fraud, it puts a strain on the system," said Marcus Barlow, the agency's spokesman. "Right now, with revenues down and feds looking at the budget, fraud is something we have to attack."
State officials said they can't do anything about stores breaking the rules. That responsibility falls on U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators.
That agency cited privacy concerns and refused to tell 6News which stores have been determined to have broken rules and have been banned from the program.
The owner of the Marathon station, Saad Ali, said he was unaware of the situation since he bought the business last month.
"This is the first time I bought a gas station and running it, so I never sold anything," Ali said.
At Best Price Dollar and Food, the manager denied any wrongdoing and blamed a new cash register for the pricing discrepancy.
"This surprises me," said manager Gary Siddi when shown the hidden video. "This is the only store in Indianapolis who's trying to help poor people. We're not trying to rip off. We don't overcharge."
Best Price's owner didn't respond to 6News' requests for an interview.
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