Man sentenced in Texas for stealing $2.6 million worth of food stamps from people in need

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A man has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for stealing $2.6 million in food stamps from people with disabilities and others in need, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Leigha Simonton said in a news release Wednesday.

James Peabody, 34, pleaded guilty in August to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and was sentenced Tuesday in Fort Worth by U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman, who called the crime “one of the most disturbing schemes” he’d seen during his tenure, according to the release.

At Peabody’s sentencing hearing, beneficiaries whose accounts were drained testified that they were forced to rely on food banks. One woman said that she resorted to eating out of dumpsters because she could not afford to buy food.

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is often the only way low-income Americans can afford to feed their families. I can only imagine the devastation these victims felt at the cash register when they attempted to pay for their groceries and discovered their accounts had been emptied,” Simonton said in the release.

Peabody and his co-conspirators stole directly from thousands of victims who needed funds from SNAP to buy food and other necessary household items, said FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Chad Yarbrough.

According to plea papers, Peabody admitted to defrauding the SNAP program, commonly referred to as food stamps.

He and two co-conspirators, Saybah Keihn, 48, and Margretta Jabbeh, 43, opened several African food stores, where they applied for and received SNAP merchant privileges, according to the release.

They then used electronic benefit transfer cards programmed with stolen SNAP account information and used them to “purchase” groceries from their own stores, the release states. The account information was illegally obtained by placing “skimming” devices on point-of-sale terminals in stores throughout the U.S.

The SNAP beneficiaries were not present in the stores at the time of the transactions and no groceries were actually purchased, according to the investigation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administrates SNAP, deposited more than $2.6 million in bank accounts associated with the defendants’ stores, the release says. The beneficiaries learned there was no money in their accounts when they tried to use their SNAP benefits to buy food or groceries, according to Simonton.

Keihn and Jabbeh both previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Keihn was sentenced to 108 months and Jabbeh 129 months in federal prison.