In a new twist on Internet scams, federal officials say people desperate for government assistance are being taken in by food stamp sites that promise to get them benefits.
Phony websites complete with data, current food stamp news, and information submission pages have been flagged by the Florida Department of Children and Families and the U.S Department of Agriculture.
Joe Follick, communications director for the Florida Department of Children and Families, tells ABC News the scam was first brought to their attention last year when an applicant said they stumbled across a website that allegedly required a fee in exchange for information on applying for food stamp benefits, now known as the national SNAP program – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"We did research and once you went to this website for more information on how to apply we were hit with spam emails," said Follick.
Soon after some dozen websites including getfoodstampsnow.org, govbenefitsonline.org, and foodstampsnetwork.net as well as many pop up ads tied to Google searches with phrases such as "Florida food stamps" were discovered. The Florida Department of Children and Families along with the U.S Department of Agriculture oversees and funds the national food stamp program – SNAP. Both government agencies contacted the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General's Office and alerted them about these sites.
With over 45 million Americans depending on government food aid from SNAP, the Florida Department of Children and Families says the only way to apply for these benefits is directly through their state's department website or through local government assistance agencies. It's the same procedure in all 50 states.
"Over 90 percent of our applicants apply online so we've tried to make sure people understand they should only apply for benefits through our website which is safe and of course free," Follick tells ABC News. "Nobody should ever pay for benefits or have their process delayed because of faulty information or spam."
Florida currently has over 3.2 million residents receiving food stamps -- that's 1 in 6 Floridians. The rate of increase has slowed but there has been an increase since last year nonetheless.
One Florida man has been sued by the Federal government over food stamp promises. In April of this year the FTC filed contempt charges against Sam Sky of Fort Myers, Florida for falsely promising he would show "almost everyone or virtually everyone" how to legally apply for and obtain food stamps. Sky operated at least two websites, myfoodstampcard.com and allrepo.com, both deceptively marketing a "Food Stamp Eligibility Tool Kit."
Consumers were asked to enter their credit card information and pay a fee of $99 in exchange for a "guide" on how to obtain food stamps. According to the FTC's court documents Sky's "guide" encouraged consumers to misrepresent their income and expense information on food stamp applications.
The Florida Department of Children and Families says promising anyone food stamps is impossible due to the states' law and criteria on who is eligible to receive food stamps.
"There is no magic trick or way to easily beat the system," said Follick. "Only people that need and qualify for help will receive it, anyone trying to beat the system should know that it's illegal and they will be prosecuted."
The Internet Crime Complaint Center which works in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White collar Crime Center has not received complaints of such food stamp websites but they urge people to go to their website and be clear and thorough when providing information so that the FBI can establish trends and provide public awareness guidance on scam alerts.
"When people are looking for things online and being solicited they really need to use judgment and common sense," said Jenny Shearer, spokesperson for the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. "If you're being asked to put in your information to receive assistance or food stamps that just seems very odd and you should be weary of replying to those appeals.