Authorities in St. Petersburg say a convenience store operator is responsible for operating a retail fraud ring involving at least six Tampa Bay area stores resulting in more than $1.6 million dollars in fraudulent purchases.
According to reports, Wail Mari, owner of King Food Mart, has been charged with public assistance fraud, scheme to defraud and trafficking in credit cards. St. Petersburg police received investigative help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Florida’s Department of Children and Families as part of a 15-month investigation into the retail fraud ring. A store manager where Mari was making purchases alerted police in October 2014 about suspicious EBT card use.
Electronic benefit transfer (EBT) is a system that allows state welfare departments to issue benefits through the use of an encoded payment card. Public assistance recipients can then use the EBT card at participating retailers to purchase authorized essentials, such as food items.
Police say Mari would buy EBT cards from local public assistance recipients. He would offer 50 cents on the dollar to some, while others received as little as 30 cents on the dollar. He would then use the cards at stores like Sam’s Club to buy items for his store and others in Tampa, Dunedin, Seminole and St. Petersburg. After using the cards, Mari would take them to a BP gas station to clear the remaining balance in exchange for cash.
When Mari was apprehended during a traffic stop, authorities reported finding EBT cards in his possession. Police then executed search warrants and seized two U Haul trucks of food items from King Food Mart and $169,000 in cash.
Thus far, Mari has been linked to incidents involving 430 of the cards since October 2014. However, the scheme is likely much more involved than that. During the course of an interview with police, Mari indicated that he has been running the EBT scam for 13 years in the St. Petersburg market.
A total of 15 arrests have been made thus far during the investigation, with others implicated that will likely result in additional arrests of store owners and other accomplices. Police have also issued warrants for the arrest of the 50 worst EBT sellers involved in the retail fraud ring, to include anyone who sold more than $200 in cash credits to Mari.