I-Team: Store owner sentenced for food stamp fraud

Cristina's Market on Smith Street, Providence

A woman who pleaded guilty to bilking the federal government out of nearly $400,000 through food stamp fraud has been sentenced to prison.

Defrauding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- SNAP, commonly known as the food stamp program -- is a national problem. The government estimates that one out of every 20 food stamp transaction is fraudulent.

U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island Peter Neronha said Cristina Ramirez will spend one year and one day in a federal prison, along with three years of supervised release. The first eight months of the supervised release requires Ramirez to be electronically monitored in home confinement.

She was also ordered to pay $399,000 in restitution.

Ramirez was the owner of Cristina's market on Smith Street in Providence. She was one of 10 defendants in a sweeping crackdown on food stamp fraud that came to a conclusion last September.

Ramirez's business allowed for dozens of food stamp recipients to defraud the federal food stamp program.

The government's case, as well as an NBC 10 I-Team hidden camera investigation two years ago, revealed various ways in which food stamp recipients, with the cooperation of corrupt convenience store owners defrauded the program.

In many cases, the owner of a convenience market allowed to accept food stamps would "purchase" a food stamp recipient's EBT card for less money than the dollar value of the card.

The store owner would then use the card to pay for phony transactions which would result in the government depositing funds in the store's account.

In the case of Ramirez, she caused the government, over a three-year period, to deposit more than $1 million in her business account for food stamp reimbursement.

She made illegal withdrawals of nearly $400,000.

Two of Ramirez's employees at her store were undocumented immigrants.

One government prosecutor says Ramirez took great care to attempt to cover up her illegal scheme.

She would be careful not to withdraw more than $10,000 at any one time to avoid being questioned about large banking transactions.

The prosecutor said Ramirez committed the crime to enhance her lifestyle, buying a home and new car.

Ramirez has also been ordered to cooperate with immigration officials to help determine her status.