COCOA, Fla. - The owner of a store in Cocoa is accused of stealing up to $367,000 in welfare benefits through a scheme using EBT cards, according to police.
Investigators say a store like Mike's Shop-N-Save should be producing on average about $1,500 in EBT transactions per month, and when monthly totals were up to $12,000, the Cocoa Police Department began their investigation. Authorities believe there has been as much as $367,000 in fraud through the store.
Prakash Patel, 38, was arrested Wednesday morning after an 18-month investigation came to an end. Cocoa police served a search warrant to Patel's store after receiving multiple complaints from the community about how the business was operating illegally.
Lawyer Berry was in the store when police first showed up. He said, "It was like they were raiding a drug house. They had guns drawn and police were saying, 'hands up.' They were still coming in the door, and after a while they said get out and everybody started moving."
Police say that Patel would allow people with EBT cards to purchase beer, cigarettes, lottery tickets and K-2 spice, which is the illegal synthetic marijuana.
Investigators also believe that Patel would give his customers cash back on their purchase, which isn't allowed on EBT cards.
Officer Barbara Matthews with the Cocoa Police Department said, "Let's say you want $50 cash. He will do a phony transaction, get $100 out from the card and keep $50 for himself and give you $50. Every transaction that he's doing, he's keeping basically half the money."
Matthews said that customers would also sell their EBT cards to Patel for cash and he would charge them about $.50 to the dollar.
Police say the store can remain open pending the outcome of the investigation, but employees said the store was closed as soon as police were finished with the raid.
Investigators believe that there are more stores in the Cocoa area that may be operating the same type of business and more arrests could be coming soon.
Police say that Patel is charged with social welfare fraud, money laundering, racketeering and sale of synthetic marijuana.
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