JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Stephen Taylor never thought he'd need to ask for help. But late last year, he finally broke down and got a food stamp debit card.
"I lost my job a couple of months ago and had to apply for food stamps. It's kind of degrading for a working man. I've worked since I was 15 years old."
But the money hasn't gone as far as he hoped -- and not because of his spending habits. In November, just two days after he got the card, it was drained of everything. More than $600, just gone.
Confused, Stephen called JP Morgan Chase, the bank that issues cards for Florida's food stamp program. They told him that the money was spent at mobile meat and seafood vendor on the Westside, a business Stephen Taylor had never even heard of.
"They told me 'Midwestern food distribution,'" he said. Taylor called and demanded his money back. Much to his surprise, the business manager agreed ... immediately.
"Within 5 minutes, he had $600 back on my card somehow," he says, "Without verifying who I am or anything. I've never even been to that place of business, never met the guy."
Taylor reported the incident -- both to police and to the state Department of Children and Families, which runs the state's food stamp program. But he got little response. "Nobody seemed to care."
Because Taylor got his money back, he might have forgotten all about the whole thing. But on Dec. 21, the same thing happened. Again, his account was drained -- $184.31. This time, it was three days before Christmas, spoiling his plan for a special dinner
"I ended up having a can of collard greens -- and pork shoulder, I'd planned to make beans and ham with," says Taylor. "I actually had to slice a few good pieces out of that shoulder and bake in oven, try to give my wife some kind of Christmas dinner. My wife was more upset than I was."
First Coast News asked the vendors involved what happened. Initially the manager of Midwestern locked the door and refused to talk. But eventually, James Kelly, the owner, came out and explained that his mobile salesman had processed the wrong card number.
"It has a different name on it than the guy that called up -- didn't have his name on it -- Stephen or whatever. So we shouldn't have charged his card. It was some kind of mistake. That's why we gave his money back."
Unlike regular stores, Kelly said his vendors process food stamp debit cards manually, as a so-called "manual voucher." The process does not require a pin number, but Kelly said the salesman is supposed to verify the customer's identity and take down their personal information. In this case, neither happened.
"It was it an honest mistake, a clerical error," he said. "Like I said, I don't know right now."
Ranch House Foods, also on Jacksonville's Westside, used a similar procedure when they drained Stephen Taylor's debit card that second time.
Manager Travis Atkinson didn't want to be interviewed on camera. But he agreed to show us the bill of sale.
"The transaction you had in question, which I imagine this is it, at $184.31."
In this case, he acknowledges, the salesman did not collect the information he was supposed to, or verify the man's identity.
When we asked DCF about the use of manual vouchers in purchases, they referred us to USDA, which oversees the national food stamp program. Officials there said that manual vouchers are only intended to be used only in rare situations, like when there is a power failure. The USDA's office of inspector general declined to say whether they were investigating the use of manual vouchers in these specific cases or in any widespread fraud.
For Stephen, who is still out $184, the issue goes beyond his grocery bill.
"I'm not worried about the money. At this point someone needs to pay. Someone needs to go to jail. You don't' steal from people who had to apply for food stamps. You don't steal period. That's just lowlife."
First For You: Any food stamp recipient who feels he or she has been a victim of fraud is strongly encouraged to contact the USDA Office of Inspector General's fraud hotline at (800) 424-9121.
First Coast News