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Taking advantage of understaffed agencies, crooks are cheating the U.S. government out of a staggering $2 billion a year in food-stamp fraud. The latest twist is the creation of phony grocery stores that buy food stamps from willing welfare recipients - at perhaps half the face value - and then redeem the stamps from the government at full value.

How can thieves be taking billions from the government at a time when agencies have to struggle for every dollar in tight budgets?Part of the problem stems from an explosive growth in food-stamp benefits. Some 26 million Americans - one in 10 - receive food stamps, making it the largest welfare program in government, costing $24 billion a year.

Along with this explosive growth, tight budgets have caused the U.S. Agriculture Department to reduce the number of food-stamp fraud investigators. The USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has only 40 such investigators, compared to 80 back in 1979, when the number of recipients was far smaller.

In addition, the USDA's field office staff, which oversees food stamps as well as many nutrition programs, has shrunk from about a thousand workers to less that 150.

As a result, tracking fraud has become difficult. For example, phony grocery stores ought to be easy to spot since the USDA requires stores to meet certain standards before they are authorized to accept food stamps. But because of lack of staff, the USDA authorizes grocers to participate by mail, without ever having an inspection or face-to-face meeting.

That is just asking for trouble in a program that handles billions of food stamp certificates that have the same value as hard cash. Many such "grocery" outlets are nothing more than storefront operations with little or no food for sale. Their only business is trafficking in food stamps.

Clearly, the federal government needs more investigators and a tighter method of validating stores. But efforts to wring more funding out of Congress for this purpose have run into a stone wall.

The reluctance to spend more federal dollars is understandable. But if additional agents could plug the fraudulent loss of some of that $2 billion a year, they would more than pay their own way.

Congress should let the USDA hire more agents and start saving the taxpayers a great deal of money.