OPA-LOCKA, FLA. (WSVN) - The fish market at the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market is now the home of the largest food stamp fraud scheme ever in the United States, according to federal investigators.
Wednesday morning, the fish market at the flea market was raided by federal agents after authorities found evidence that linked kiosk owners to an illegal food stamp scheme.
At 2 p.m., the United States Attorney’s Office held a joint press conference to announce the filing of federal and state charges against the retail store owners and operators in connection with the schemes.
According to U.S. Attorney Wilfredo A. Ferrer, businesses were charging the U.S. government for the food stamps, but instead of giving people food like they were supposed to, they were giving them cash and keeping government money for themselves, as well. “The illicit schemes announced today involved a total of more than $13 million in the loss. This is the largest food stamp fraud takedown in U.S. history,” he said.
The seafood stores were just a front for an underground illegal operation. A sign hung outside the business even read, “We accept food stamps … Fresh fish,” but there was not an ounce of food in sight.
Officials busted into the fish market and left with boxes of evidence. They said stores like these were a money machine at the government’s expense.
Investigators said people would come to the market and businesses would allow them to redeem their food stamps for cash, and officials said the businesses were getting a cut. “They are operating food and produce stands, which literally have nothing for sale, other than the ability to exchange the food stamps or the other benefits for cash,” said Ferrer.
Ferrer said it is unprecedented, with $13 million in food stamp fraud, calling the raid “Operation Stampede.” “That’s not good, the poor people who need the food not getting it,” said Oriel Hall, who shops at the flea market.
According to Palm Beach County Police, over 500 residents of Palm Beach County had their identities stolen in order for thieves to illegally redeem food stamp benefits in exchange for cash.
The flea market raid was one of 11 food stamp fraud take-downs in Miami-Dade County. Many of the business owners at the flea market said they take food stamps but carefully follow the rules. “We only take it for the food,” said Felix Lanza, who owns a store at the flea market. “Whatever you can buy with the food stamps, yes, but nothing else.”
Investigators said those involved used electronic EBT machines to ring up the fake transactions. “Instead of providing the families with food, the store owners and operators alleged to breach the government’s trust by stealing tax payer dollars,” said Ferrer.
There were 28 suspects involved in the takedown, and seven are still on the run.
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