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Detectives Drop the Hammer on Massive Crime Ring Trafficking in Government Benefits

Over the past two weeks detectives with the Seattle Police Department’s Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), in cooperation with officers from the East Precinct’s Anti-Crime Team and Community Police Team, the Department of Social and Health Services’ (DSHS) Office of Fraud and Accountability and federal agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), conducted an investigation into the trafficking and fraudulent use of government-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (“EBT”) cards involving the Minh Tam Market in the 1000 block of South Jackson Street. 

EBT cards allow state and federal welfare agencies to issue benefits via a magnetically encoded payment card and among other things, have largely replaced the food stamp program. The investigation revealed the extent of the illegal trafficking of EBT benefits and the great lengths criminals will go to in order to steal enormous amounts of money from the hardworking taxpayers and citizens of our community. 

On February 19th, 2014 the Major Crimes Task Force executed a total of eight search warrants surrounding two separate trafficking rings, arresting four suspects and seizing over $427,000.00 in U.S. currency located in bank accounts, the suspect store location and the suspect’s home residence. 

During the first phase of the investigation, several undercover sales of EBT benefits were sold to a female suspect in her 60’s, who processed transactions at various stores for food items. She then paid undercover officers approximately 50 cents on the dollar for the benefit amount used on the EBT cards. Undercover officers were told by the suspect that the food items that she was purchasing were being resold to other unidentified suspects, who own and run Seattle area restaurants. Those restaurants have not been identified at this time. The female suspect was arrested yesterday but has not been charged yet. 

In the second phase of the investigation several additional undercover sales of EBT benefits were sold directly at Minh Tam’s Market, which then gave the undercover officers cash back at the same rate of approximately 50 cents on the dollar. The undercover officer would simply meet up with an associate/employee of the store, walk inside, approach the store clerk and let them know how much of their government issued EBT benefit funds they wished to sell. The store clerk would make the transaction and give the undercover officer approximately half of the cash amount, which the store transferred into their account. In two of the undercover transactions, the associate/employee, who met with the undercover officers and introduced them to the store clerk, also sold the undercover officers suspected rock cocaine as a portion of their food stamp transaction payment. 

The suspects in these cases potentially face a multitude of charges including Food Stamp Trafficking and Money Laundering.

The Washington State Attorney General’s Office has agreed to open up a case on the suspect(s) with the U.S. Attorney’s Office possibly looking at federal charges as well.  

This case is still ongoing and continues to be investigated by the Seattle Police Department’s Major Crimes Task Force along with the USDA and DSHS.