Milking the System: Infant formula fraud - WECT TV6-WECT.com:News, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Milking the System: Infant formula fraud

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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) -

Families shopping for baby formula at the store are likely paying anywhere from $10 to $40 per canister, a cost that quickly adds up. At the State level, North Carolina's WIC program spent $72,302,620 in Federal dollars last calendar year to help mother's feed their babies. While the program has helped hundreds of thousands of people, there are some participants making quick cash off the system in a type of fraud that hurts taxpayers and honest WIC families.

The Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) operates through 1,900 local agencies in 10,000 clinic sites with services provided at county health departments, hospitals, mobile clinics, community centers, schools, and public housing sites. One of those programs provides eligible mother's with infant formula.

Upon meeting specific requirements and signing an agreement, participants can receive anywhere from 6 to 10 canisters of baby formula to support their nutritional needs. The volume received depends on the baby's age and whether or not the mother is breastfeeding.

While local WIC programs require participants to sign an agreement outlining their responsibilities as a recipient - including the return of any unused formula - a quick search on social media and sites like Craigslist.com and eBay turns up posts by mother's trying to re-sale the canisters which they are getting for free.

"People just take advantage of everything," says Glendora Hansley, a Wilmington WIC recipient. "People just can't have something and be like thankful for what you've got."

Without her WIC-supplied infant formula, Glendora says she's not sure how she would have fed both her premie girls. In between working and breastfeeding, she says the supplemental supply helped her family get through lean times.

As such, she gets frustrated when she sees other WIC supported mother's using social media to make a quick profit.

"Some people actually take their children off of formula milk and try to wean them to the regular milk, which you can buy off of stamps," she explains. "And then they'll sell canned milk to get the money for it."

WIC officials are not oblivious to this kind of fraud and they periodically scan sites like Craigslist.com using key words to find offenders. While they're able to nab some cases, officials say most of their investigations begin when someone reports a case of fraud directly to their office.

"We investigate all reported cases and certainly, if we identify a case independent of a report, we take it very seriously," says Josephine Cialone, North Carolina's WIC Director.

Over a recent twelve month period, Josephine says the program investigated 238 cases of suspected fraud and abuse, with just 11 of them being related to the online re-sale of food and formula.

"Our program services over 250,000 participants per month and we're talking about a rare few people who, for whatever reason, potentially abuse the program," says Josephine.

WIC mother's like Glendora aren't sure those numbers are accurate based on what they've seen. While ads on Craigslist.com, eBay.com and even Facebook will often specify: "Not from WIC," Glendora says that's likely not the case.

Moreover, she says sellers have started using "safer" sites like a private Facebook account to sell while remaining hidden from the eyes of program officials.

When mothers are given their monthly allotment of formula, they sign an agreement titled "My Rights and Responsibilities." This document outlines eight rules, including:

            5. Lying and hiding or withholding facts may mean that I will have to repay, in cash, the State Agency for the value of foods that I should not have received…

            6. Exchanging WIC foods and/or formula, for cash, credit, non-food items, or non-WIC food, is a violation subject to federal and state sanctions.

Despite the rules, Glendora says she doubts the unused formula is usually returned. WIC staff in New Hanover County tell WECT that there are many participants who return their unused formula, as instructed.

"They are really strict with everything so in order to get over on them you gotta be telling lies and stuff," she points out.

WIC officials encourage anyone aware of fraud to report the information to the State office at: http://www.nutritionnc.com/contactindex.htm.

If you are a mother looking for discounted formula online, WIC officials say without a receipt, it would be very hard to prove where the seller's formula came from. Be sure to check the expiration date on the canister and look for any tampering.

The Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, (http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/women-infants-and-children-wic) is a Federal program (Food and Nutrition Services of United States Department of Agriculture) with services delivered at the State and local level. The program targets low-income and nutritionally-at-risk women and children. This includes pregnant women, breastfeeding women, non-breastfeeding women up to 6 months postpartum, children up to 5 years old and infants. WIC serves 53 percent of all infants born in the United States.

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