California's Welfare Fraud Laws - 10980 WIC



California Welfare & Institutions Code 10980 addresses two main types of welfare fraud: recipient fraud and internal fraudRecipient fraud, the more common form, is when people provide false or incomplete information in order to obtain benefits, food stamps or Medi-Cal benefits to which they are not legitimately entitled.

Internal welfare fraud is when government employees play a role in assigning or distributing benefits to recipients whom they know are ineligible.

Most welfare fraud charges are wobblers, which means prosecutors have the discretion to file the cases as felonies or misdemeanors. A conviction can mean probation, fines, restitution, and possible time in jail or state prison. But if you can pay back all or a substantial part of the money, this can get you leniency...and sometimes a dismissal of the charges altogether.

In the article below, our California criminal defense attorneys1 explain the following:

If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

welfare ebt fraud
EBT/CalFresh fraud is one form of welfare fraud

1. What constitutes welfare fraud?

Generally speaking, welfare refers to public assistance programs that are designed to help the unemployed and underemployed.

1.1. A brief overview of California's welfare programs

California's welfare benefits are available to eligible participants in the form of

  • CalWORKs (California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids...formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children "ADFC"...CalWORKs is the state's primary benefits program that provides short-term cash aid for needy families who require assistance with housing, clothing, food, utilities and/or medical care),
  • CalFresh (more commonly referred to as the food stamp program, CalFresh issues monthly electronic benefits that can be used to buy food),
  • in-home services, addressing issues such as
    • domestic violence (counseling, medical and public health information, parenting skills training, financial planning and relocation services),
    • substance abuse (evaluation and treatment), and
    • mental health (assessment, case management, treatment and rehabilitation for those suffering from depression, anxiety, etc.),
  • Greater Avenues for Independence "GAIN" (provides mandatory support to CalWORKs participants to help them find employment, remain employed and advance to higher-paying jobs),
  • General Assistance or General Relief "GA/GR" (provides support to poverty-stricken adults who are not supported by other public assistance programs), and
  • Medi-Cal (Medi-Cal is California's Medicaid program that provides public health insurance coverage for low-income adults and children.  Despite the fact that Medi-Cal is a type of welfare benefit, Medi-Cal fraud is prosecuted under separate laws which are discussed in our article on California Medi-Cal Fraud.)

With respect to CalWORKs and CalFresh, most benefits are now distributed electronically.  These types of cash aid are essentially wired into an account that is linked to an Electronic Benefits Transfer "EBT" card that the recipient uses much like a debit card.  Paper checks and food stamps are becoming obsolete.

1.2. The legal definition of welfare fraud in California law

Welfare fraud takes place when people make false statements or fail to report important information when applying for these types of public programs in order to receive benefits to which they are not otherwise entitled.

Most instances of benefits fraud are prohibited under Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 WIC.  You violate this law by

  1. deliberately misstating information or failing to provide relevant information in order to obtain, retain or increase undeserved welfare benefits,
  2. applying for benefits under more than one name or by filing multiple applications to obtain multiple benefits, and/or
  3. using, transferring, acquiring, purchasing, selling, possessing, altering or counterfeiting
    • (a) authorizations to receive food stamps, or
    • (b) actual food stamps.2

1.3. The investigation process

Local prosecuting agencies receive their California welfare fraud cases from a number of sources.  Many local district attorneys' offices (including the Los Angeles District Attorney and the Fresno District Attorney) have their own welfare fraud units which are dedicated to prosecuting these types of offenses.

Prosecutors receive referrals from

  • the public "report welfare fraud" hotlines and websites that are provided by their offices,
  • local "department of social services" agencies who oversee the disbursement of benefits,
  • tips received on statewide public reporting hotlines, and
  • any other agencies that suspect possible welfare fraud.

Welfare fraud investigators will begin their investigations by contacting the named recipients to question them about the benefits they are currently receiving and about the information they provided to obtain those benefits.  Investigators may also contact friends, co-workers, family, and neighbors to obtain additional information that may be useful to prove or negate the fraud allegations.

On a side note, unannounced home visits or witness interviews oftentimes reveal additional issues, such as

Consequently, agencies such as

may also become involved in on-going investigations.

Once an investigator compiles all the relevant information, he/she presents it to a deputy district attorney who will review it to determine if a criminal filing is appropriate.

If the D.A. believes there is enough information to prosecute, he/she will file criminal charges (typically under Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 and possibly under one or more related sections, discussed at length in Section 5. Related Offenses).  Otherwise, he/she will

  1. refer the case back to the investigator to gather more information,
  2. determine that there is insufficient evidence of wrongdoing and simply reject the case, or
  3. place the case in a welfare fraud diversion program, discussed below in Section 4.3. Restitution in lieu of criminal charges.
fraud folder detective's office
Unlawfully receiving welfare benefits is one form of welfare fraud

2. What are some examples of welfare fraud?

There are two main types of California welfare fraud:  recipient fraud and internal fraud.

2.1. Recipient welfare fraud

Under 10980 WIC, recipient welfare fraud is fraud committed by those who receive...or unlawfully attempt to receive...welfare benefits to which they're not legitimately entitled.

Although there are a variety of ways to commit recipient welfare fraud, some are more common than others.  The most common examples of California welfare fraud take place when someone tries to obtain unlawful benefits by

  • claiming that he/she is a single parent while the child's other parent actually lives in the home (known as "absent parent living in the home"),
  • failing to report additional income or other benefits,
  • submitting a claim for a child who does not live in the home,
  • submitting a claim for fictitious or ineligible children, and/or
  • collecting benefits from another state in addition to those collected in California.

Examples of actual California recipient welfare fraud cases

Los Angeles - A husband and wife applied for cash-aid based on their alleged low income.  The couple failed to report that the wife owned a liquor store and recycling business.  She also drove a $76,000 luxury car, shopped at high-end department stores and had almost $150,000 hidden in her bedroom dresser. 3

Stanislaus County - A Modesto man deliberately failed to disclose a felony conviction that disqualified him from receiving the food stamps for which he applied.4

Ventura County - A Simi Valley woman used fake Social Security numbers to obtain almost $2,000 in cash aid and food stamps.5

Arizona / California - In addition to misstating her income and the number of children she had on ten different welfare applications, an Arizona woman deliberately failed to inform the state that she was already receiving substantial adoption payments in California.6

2.2. Internal welfare fraud

Internal welfare fraud takes place when an employee of a government agency that distributes welfare benefits attempts to (or does) collect or distribute unlawful benefits from that agency.

Most of the time, this "inside job" occurs when the eligibility worker falsifies applications for otherwise ineligible friends or family and splits the proceeds.  Workers may create fictitious children, make false claims about income or fail to report facts which would disqualify these friends or family from receiving legitimate benefits.

Example: Los Angeles - An eligibility worker for the Los Angeles Department of Public Social Services was convicted for creating fictitious welfare cases for friends and family, setting up payments for ineligible and nonexistent children.  Her acts of internal fraud cost the county over $700,000.

Persons who are convicted of internal welfare fraud not only face fraud charges and a variety of additional related charges (discussed below in Section 4. Penalties, Punishment and Sentencing). They also face charges for embezzlement.

You violate Penal Code 503 PC California's embezzlement law ...also known as employee theft...when you unlawfully take money or other property that has been entrusted to you.7

This means that if you are a social services worker who helps control how welfare benefits are distributed--or who knows how to bypass some of the procedures that are otherwise necessary before benefits may be authorized--and you misappropriate those benefits, you face up to three years in the California state prison.8 And if you embezzle more than $65,000, you face an additional one to four-year sentence.9

attorney working on welfare fraud case
There are a variety of legal defenses that an experienced California fraud defense lawyer can present on your behalf.

3. Is it possible to fight the charges?

Fortunately, there are a variety of legal defenses that an experienced California fraud defense lawyer can present on your behalf.  The following are examples of some of the most common.

3.1. You didn't have fraudulent intent

Regardless of which California fraud law prosecutors accuse you of violating, they can't convict you unless they can prove that you had fraudulent intent.  If the prosecutor can't prove that you acted with the specific intent to defraud, the judge will instruct the jury to find you "not guilty" of the charges.

This means that, for example, your California criminal defense attorney could argue that you

  • believed you submitted a legitimate claim for benefits (and any incorrect statements or omissions were inadvertent),
  • didn't realize that you needed to report lottery winnings, gifts, or an inheritance to the department, or
  • simply forgot to update your status once one of your children become ineligible for benefits.

3.2. Insufficient evidence

Let's say that you are accused of internal welfare fraud.  Your employer reported you because he noticed that

  • you had numerous duplicate files,
  • documents were often missing from your case files, and
  • you had suspicious contact with some of the applicants.

Despite the fact that this evidence seems incriminating, it's not conclusive.  And even if the evidence strongly suggests that you were embezzling funds, without actual proof, you should be exonerated of the offense.  Unless the prosecutor can prove that you are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt (that is, to a moral certainty), you are legally entitled to be acquitted.

3.3. False accusations / mistaken identity

This defense works best with allegations involving internal welfare fraud, although it may be applicable to recipient fraud as well.

Even if there are legitimate claims of welfare fraud, it doesn't necessarily mean that you are the guilty party.  You could be accused of internal welfare fraud.  Yet if the applicants are friends or family, they could be trying to take advantage of your position in the county.  Perhaps they submitted incorrect information on their applications and...because you are simply assumed they were providing correct information and didn't take steps to verify it as you should have.

This type of negligence could potentially justify your losing your job. But it should not subject you to criminal liability.

Or let's say you are accused of recipient welfare fraud based on the fact that there is a fictitious child listed on your application.  Perhaps your live-in boyfriend altered your application before he submitted it on your behalf.

Or maybe someone submitted a benefits application using your name and Social Security number.  It may very well be that you are the victim of identity theft and that you had no knowledge that someone was illegally using your information.

You could even be falsely accused of this offense based on clerical errors. After all, governmental bureaucracies are notorious for making mistakes on a regular basis.

The bottom line is that there are a variety of reasons why you could falsely be accused of this offense.  Regardless of the reason, we have the inside knowledge and resources that allow us to investigate your case and demonstrate your innocence.

3.4. Restitution Agreements

Welfare fraud prosecutors are primarily concerned with recouping monies for the county or state. If you are in a position to repay all or a substantial part of the money you are accused of bilking, the prosecution is often willing to reduce the charge or agree to a light sentence

Example: Mary is accused of receiving $22000 in welfare benefits while not reporting that her boyfriend was working and living in the home. She's charged with felony Welfare & Institutions Code 10980. The D.A. offers her a deal. If she can repay $15000 of it, he will reduce the charge to a misdemeanor and not seek jail time. The judge continues the case for a year to allow Mary to work to pay this restitution. She pays off the $15000, earns a misdemeanor, and avoids jail.

4. Can a convicted person be put in jail?

Your penalty under Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 will depend on which section of the code you violate.  Some are straight misdemeanors, some are straight felonies and others are what are called wobblers.  A "wobbler" is an offense that may be punished as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on

  1. the facts of the case, and
  2. your criminal history.

4.1. The different offenses of Welfare and Institutions Code 10980, California's welfare fraud law


If you are convicted of making a false or misleading statement in an effort to obtain benefits, you face a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a maximum $500 fine.10

Filing fraudulent applications

You face a wobbler if you are convicted of filing a fraudulent application because:

  • you have filed multiple applications for the same person,
  • you have applied for aid for a fictitious person, or
  • you have applied for benefits using a false identity.

The felony is punishable by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • up to $5,000 in fines.

The misdemeanor is punishable by:

  • a maximum of one year in jail, and/or
  • up to $1,000 in fines.11

Obtaining or retaining benefits

Obtaining or retaining fraudulent benefits is a misdemeanor if:

  1. you actually obtained or retained fraudulent benefits, and
  2. those benefits totaled $950 or less.

As a misdemeanor, it is punishable by:

  • up to six months in jail, and/or
  • a maximum $500 fine.

However, if the aid was for more than $950, you face a felony. The felony is punishable by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • up to $5,000 in fines.12

Regarding food stamps...

If you are convicted of engaging in any activity with unauthorized blank authorizations to participate in the food stamp program, you face a felony. It is punishable by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • up to $5,000 in fines.13

It is a wobbler offense, however, to

  • use,
  • transfer,
  • sell,
  • purchase, or
  • possess

food stamps, electronically transferred benefits or food stamp authorizations in an unlawful manner.

If the value of the food stamp benefits or authorizations is $950 or less, it is a misdemeanor. It is punishable by:

  • up to six months in jail, and/or
  • a maximum $500 fine.

If, however, the value exceeds $950, it is a felony. It can be punished by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • a maximum $5,000 fine.14

Electronically transferred benefits

You face additional penalties if:

  1. you are convicted of committing welfare fraud, and
  2. the fraud (or attempted fraud) involved electronically transferred benefits.

On top of the sentence for welfare fraud, you face an additional and consecutive:

  • one year of incarceration if the transfer of benefits exceeds $50,000,
  • two years if the transfer exceeds $150,000,
  • three years if the transfer exceeds $1,000,000, or
  • four years if the transfer exceeds $2,500,000.15

4.2. Additional penalties

In addition to the penalties noted above, a conviction for welfare fraud subjects you to

4.3. Restitution in lieu of criminal charges

Depending on the circumstances, there will be times when you may be able to repay your fraudulently obtained benefits without suffering a criminal conviction at all.  Many counties, including

  • Fresno,
  • San Diego, and
  • San Francisco

offer welfare fraud diversion programs.  Individual diversion programs will vary. But in general, they allow individuals (a) with little or no criminal history and (b) who have not deprived the county of too much money (Fresno, for example, sets the limit at $3,000) the opportunity to repay the money in exchange for a dismissal of the fraud charges.

Defendants must typically plead guilty to the charge.  If they successfully complete a diversion class and repay the money that they fraudulently obtained, the court will dismiss the charges. Otherwise, the judge will pronounce judgment and impose a sentence.

And if prosecutors are unwilling to allow you to pay restitution in lieu of filing criminal charges, voluntarily repaying your ill-gotten benefits may convince the judge to reduce your ultimate sentence.

5. Related Offenses

Because California welfare fraud frequently involves allegations of theft, forgery, and perjury, prosecutors may file the following charges in addition to or in lieu of California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980.

5.1. Penal Code 487 PC California's grand theft law

Penal Code 487 PC California's grand theft law prohibits unlawfully taking another person or entity's property that is valued above $950.  "Property" includes money, labor, personal property or land.

This means that if you fraudulently obtain unemployment benefits that total more than $950, prosecutors could charge you with this wobbler, punishable by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • a maximum $10,000 fine.18

5.2. Penal Code 470 PC California's forgery law

Penal Code 470 PC California's forgery law prohibits knowingly altering, creating, or using a written document intending to commit a fraud.  This means that if, for example, you

  1. apply for welfare benefits by signing someone else's name as the applicant, or
  2. counterfeit or alter food stamps or use food stamps that you know are counterfeit or altered,

prosecutors could additionally opt to file forgery charges. If convicted of forgery, you face a wobbler. As a felony, it is punishable by:

  • 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
  • a maximum $10,000 fine.19

5.3. Penal Code 118 PC California's perjury laws

Penal Code 118 PC California's perjury law is a felony. It subjects you to:

  • two, three or four years in jail, and/or
  • a maximum $10,000 fine.

You violate this law when you deliberately give false information while under an oath to be truthful.20

This means that if, for example, you submit an application for welfare benefits

  • in a false name,
  • with a false social security number, or
  • with other intentionally falsified information in your application,

prosecutors could charge you with this felony.21

5.4. Penal Code 182 PC California's conspiracy law

Penal Code 182 PC California's conspiracy law prohibits conspiring to commit a crime.  If you conspire with another person...that is, make an agreement to commit an unlawful order to obtain fraudulent welfare benefits you face a felony, punishable by the same penalties you face for being convicted of California welfare fraud.22

Conspiracy charges would most likely be filed in connection with an internal welfare fraud case where the employee was arranging for unlawful benefits to be distributed to his/her friends or family.

Call us for help...

california criminal defense attorneys
Call us at (855) LAW-FIRM

If you or loved one is charged with Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 WIC welfare fraud and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys are available to answer any questions about Nevada's welfare fraud laws.  For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.23

Legal References:

  1. Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.  We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

  2. California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 WIC

  3. Taken from The California Department of Social Services "Welfare Fraud Stories" webpage.

  4. See same.

  5. See same.

  6. See same.

  7. California Penal Code 503 - Definition.  ("Embezzlement is the fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been intrusted.")

  8. California Penal Code 514 - Punishment; determination of value; defalcation of public funds; disenfranchisement.  

  9. California Penal Code Section 12022.6 - Taking, damaging or destruction of property; commission of felony; additional punishment.   

  10. California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 - California Welfare Fraud, section (a), endnote 2, above.

  11.  Id.

  12.  Id.

  13.  Id.

  14.  Id.

  15.  Id.

  16. To learn more about how criminal convictions can affect professional licenses, please visit our pages on professional license issues (which are organized by individual professions).

  17. 8 U.S. Code Section 1227 -- Deportable aliens. 

    As stated above, fraud is considered a crime of moral turpitude (see our article on Crimes of Moral Turpitude for more information).

  18. Penal Code 487 PC California's grand theft law.  

  19. California Welfare and Institutions Code 10980 - California Welfare Fraud, section (e), endnote 2, above.

    See also California Penal Code 470: Forgery; Signatures or Seals; Corruption of Records.  

    See also California Penal Code 473 PC -- Forgery; punishment.  ("Forgery is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")

    See also Penal Code 672, endnote 12, above.

  20. California Penal Code 118 PC - California's Perjury law. 

  21. People v. Ramirez (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 65, 73.  

  22. California Penal Code 182 PC -- Conspiracy Definition; punishment; venue; evidence necessary to support conviction.  

  23. Please feel free to contact our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys Michael Becker and Neil Shouse for any questions relating to Nevada's drug court and diversion programs. Our Nevada law offices are located in Reno and Las Vegas.

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