SALT LAKE CITY – An Arkansas woman faces 17 counts of fraud for allegedly using names and identifying information of acquaintances to obtain multiple food stamp benefit cards from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which she is accused of selling for cash.

The department’s quality checks detected a suspicious pattern of spending with Utah-issued electronic benefit transfer cards, which enabled federal investigators to uncover fraudulent activity in other states, Utah officials said.

Keashia Latriese Davis, 40, of Little Rock, faces 17 counts of fraud after department employees detected that multiple purchases tied to electronic benefit transfer cards loaded with food stamp benefits from Utah’s public assistance program had been used in Arkansas.

According to a federal indictment, the diverted benefits totaled approximately $137,000. There were a total of 75 applications using different identities, the document states.

“The reason why Utah is so involved in this is because Utah was the state that actually discovered this individual and was able to provide the most evidence to the Office of Inspector General to be able to issue warrants, make arrests and be able to prosecute this individual,” said Kevin Burt, Utah Department of Workforce Services assistant director over program and training.

Davis applied for benefits online using names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, a Utah address as well as the numbers of dependents, according to court documents.

For each application, she underwent a phone interview prior to approval of the benefits.

“In this case it was very unique because she was actually providing information of real individuals, information that she had stolen so it was verifying in our system. So in this case, it got through,” Burt said.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported some of the names and identifying information were those of Davis’ deceased relatives, a former prison cellmate and other acquaintances.

“But what we do on the back end is what’s called data analytics. We look at electronic behavior such as transactions. An individual who’s on food stamps gets an EBT card and the card records activity. We were able to verify or pull cases that appeared to be problematic because the majority or all of the benefits were being spent in other states.”

According to the indictment, the benefit cards were mailed to a Utah address. “Davis then requested and paid for a ‘premium forward’ with the United States Post Office so that all held mail, (including the benefits cards) were sent to Davis in Arkansas,” the document states.

The cards were allegedly sold to people in Little Rock for cash, the Democrat-Gazette reported.

“Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP) benefits may not be used to purchase items other than eligible food and they cannot be redeemed or traded for cash,” according to the indictment.

The state of Utah provides SNAP benefits for eligible Utah residents.

Burt said the Office of the Utah State Auditor also played a role in helping detect the alleged fraud because the Department of Workforce Services had enhanced its reviews of electronic benefit card transaction at the recommendation of state auditors.

“We’ve been doing data analytics for some time, but the state auditors office recently coordinated with us and recommended some additional techniques and tips to enhance and improve our data analytics. We appreciate when someone gives us advice how to get better. A lot of their recommendations really did help us to get better,” he said.

Utah State Auditor John Dougall said the case is a “prime example of why we conduct these types of performance audits.”

“I commend Workforce Services for quickly implementing our office’s recommendations to better protect taxpayer’s money,” he said.

According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the agency’s eligibility services arm employs a variety of tools to ensure efficient and appropriate use of taxpayer dollars for SNAP benefits.

“Utah’s current accuracy rate in ensuring only eligible individuals are approved for SNAP benefits is 97 percent, higher than the national average. The Eligibility Services investigations unit works to identify and take action on ineligible payment or overpayment fraud and abuse,” the department press release said.

Jon Pierpont, the department’s executive director, said while misuse of SNAP “is fortunately not a widespread problem in Utah, we take fraud seriously and aggressively pursue action against anyone abusing the public assistance programs we administer.”

Burt said multiple factors led to the discovery of the fraudulent activity.

“This was one that worked really well. We had an audit that helped us. We had a federal partner that we have a great working relationship with and was really responsive,” Burt said.

“We have great staff that really take their jobs seriously. To them, it was a great day. It really recognizes the work they do every day.”

Copyright (C) 2016 Deseret News Publishing Co.

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