Food stamp trafficking often begins with an innocuous question.
"Can I talk to you?"
Sami Deffala, who's managed a corner store in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood for 13 years, said he hears that every day from customers vying for a private moment in hopes of using their Link cards to exchange SNAP benefits, the modern-day version of food stamps, for cash — an illegal practice called trafficking by federal regulators. And every day, Deffala said, he hears them out but refuses to take part in the scheme.
"I have people young and old doing this, from an 18 year-old-woman to a 67-year-old man," said Deffala, manager of Morgan Mini Mart. "It's a big problem."
The temptation proves too great for some retailers. Since October 2014, more than 140 stores in Chicago and another 34 in suburban Cook County have been permanently disqualified from the $75 billion federal food stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. All but one of them were kicked out for trafficking, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nationally, food stamp trafficking is on the decline, amounting to only 1.3 percent of SNAP spending, compared with 4 percent in the 1990s. And the vast majority of SNAP benefits — 82 percent — are redeemed at supermarkets and merchants like Costco.