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I-Team Special Report: Bridge Card Abuse

Updated: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 |
I-Team Special Report: Bridge Card Abuse story image
KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - The I-Team is uncovering examples of new  Bridge Card abuse in West Michigan.

We uncovered dozens of examples of people buying booze and cigarettes with their cards right at the store register.

Bridge Card food and cash assistance is supposed to be used for the essentials, food, clothes, and what a family needs to get by. But receipts show what's actually being purchased.

All of the junk food purchases are bad enough, we found a well-balanced shopping spree of Windmill Cookies, soda, Oreos and bags of candy. A $50 bill paid by food assistance on a Bridge Card.

But what really stands out,  all of the alcohol and cigarettes people are buying with a Bridge Card.

The same shopper with the junk food also bought Irish Rose Wine and a box of Newport 100's. Those two items weren't paid for with food assistance but we can see, the cash register just switches to cash benefits and accepts the Bridge Card.

Receipts were sent to us by sources over the last three months, and we see this happening over and over again.

Like when someone bought Pall Mall light menthols and Pall Mall 100's. That $15 dollars was covered by cash benefits right at the register.

We went to DHS in Lansing to find out how this is possible.

"They're clearly told it is a violation of the program to use those benefits for cigarettes or alcohol or anything like that. They're not allowed to do that," says DHS Spokesman Bob Wheaton.

DHS says Bridge Card clients know they can't buy alcohol and tobacco, but representative Peter MacGregor says it's too easy.

"We're trying to make it more difficult, we've changed some laws we've worked with the banks that provide ATM’s...you can't buy liquor, you can't buy lottery tickets with your bridge cards but we know it's happening, how do we prevent that," says MacGregor.

MacGregor is the chairman of the committee that oversees DHS’ budget. He's says he's already given them more money to investigate fraud cases like this.

"There's a lot of people who have a huge need, but we have to also make sure those tax dollars are spent wisely and accountability is a huge issue."

But DHS says the technology doesn't exist that could screen for banned items at the register and stop the process that makes it so easy.

And allows people to buy a cart of groceries and then Hot Rod cigarette tubes and Rio pipe tobacco.

Or to just buy a Natural Ice 12 pack, and Marlboro Special Blends, all paid for by taxpayers through the Bridge Card.

"DHS does take abuse of assistance very seriously we have people that investigate these types of cases and get to the bottom of them…for other people who receive and need assistance it should be available to them and not for people who are abusing the system," says Wheaton.

DHS says someone caught doing what we found happening could lose their cash assistance for a year, but for now Bridge Card holders are mostly on the honor system, and we can see how that's going.

DHS tells us the stores themselves are under no legal obligation to restrict Bridge Card purchases.
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