Orlando retailer arrested for cashing food stamps, investigators say

Public assistance fraud investigation finds abuse

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Pines of Orlando Market, a tiny, family-owned grocery store located in a strip mall, has a relatively small customer base. That's why state investigators found it suspicious the retailer was redeeming a surprisingly high volume of SNAP benefit transactions, commonly known as food stamps.

"A store that size, anywhere else, that is doing legitimate business is making about $8,000 a month (in food stamp transactions)," said Jack Heacock, the director of the state's Public Assistance Fraud division.

At the Pines of Orlando Market, the owner was redeeming about $86,000 in benefits each month, according to investigators.

Suspecting fraud, undercover agents made six visits to the store over the past few months.  Each time, they swiped an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card as if they were buying food. 

But instead of selling the agents groceries, the store owner handed them cash, according to authorities.  The payout was a little less than 50 cents for every dollar the store owner was later reimbursed by the state.

"It's the taxpayer who is losing out, because those funds are intended to purchase food," said Heacock, who is leading a charge to crack down on food stamp fraud.  "This is a renewed focus to pursue these types of crimes here in the state of Florida."
On Wednesday, state agents arrested Ashraf Maged Mostafa Ismail on charges of credit card fraud, public assistance fraud, and grand theft. He has owned the Pine Hills grocery store since at least 2015, records show.

Over a 10-month period, investigators said Ismail redeemed $863,000 in food stamp benefits, an amount similar to some large supermarkets. 

Although agents do not know exactly how much of that money may have been given to customers as cash, they suspect a large percentage may have been used by customers for a variety of non-food expenses, possibly including clothing, rent, or even drugs.

"We're going to make an impact and fight this type of fraud," said Evangelina Brooks, a captain with the state's Division of Insurance Fraud.  Her team assisted with the investigation into the Pines of Orlando Market.

After executing a search warrant on the grocery store, agents seized several boxes of items they hope will aid in future investigations.

"The second phase is going after the (cash) recipients we can identify through their patterns of transactions at this  store," said Heacock.  He indicated agents may try to identify whether some of the customers may have exchanged food stamps for cash at other retail locations.

"If you participate in this, we're coming after you," said Heacock.

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