The Maryland Department of Human Resources will step up efforts to find people who sell their food stamps for cash or otherwise defraud the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, under a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.

The agencies will sign enhanced data sharing agreements to monitor the more than 754,000 Marylanders who receive food stamps and the nearly 3,800 retailers that accept the benefits.

Virginia will also participate in the initiative, which will gradually expand to other states over time. The two states were selected because of the size of their programs and a willingness to participate, said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

"USDA is signaling a new front in our ongoing efforts to stop SNAP trafficking," Concannon said. "Despite the low rate, fraud at any level is not tolerated. We are committed to working with states to make improvements that keep us ahead of the curve and provide Americans with the excellence they deserve when it comes to wisely managing their investment in SNAP."

The rate that people exchange food stamps for money has fallen from 4 percent to about 1 percent over the past 15 years, Concannon said.

The drop is primarily due to the switch from paper vouchers to electronic benefit cards. Maryland was one of the first states to convert to the electronic cards.

The agreements are part of the continuing SNAP Stewardship Solutions Project, a scofflaw prevention effort that requires frequent review of retailers with a history or strong chance of committing fraud, among other checks.

The estimated fraud in Maryland is also about 1 percent of the $96 million in food stamp benefits provided in the state each month.

The USDA has historically been charged with monitoring the 250,000 retail outlets nationwide that accept the benefits while the states screen the 47 million recipients, about half of whom are children. The goal of the new data sharing plan is to help Maryland and Virginia develop new tools to identify suspicious activity and spot patterns of misuse.

Ted Dallas, secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said the approach makes sense, because the data sharing won't negatively affect recipients who follow the rules. The state won't need to hire additional staff to participate in the pilot program, he said.

Dallas said the state will also be able to use the techniques that the staff learns through the SNAP analytics to apply to other benefit programs.

"We're excited and intrigued by the possibilities," Dallas said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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