Numbers are easier to manipulate than faces, and everyone knows it.

When the state dumped the traditional food stamps in favor of plastic Quest cards, the program became easier to manage. But FoodShare, as it’s now called, remains ripe for fraud.

While the cards are stocked with a monthly stipend so they can be used much like the debit cards that banks issue, there’s one key difference. Recipients of FoodShare aid can only use the money for food — not toiletries, medicine, cigarettes or alcohol. So some people sell the cards for cash, finding willing partners who pay less than the value on the card.

Earlier this month, after county officials announced they were looking into “rampant” fraud among card users here, we wrote that the state must place a keener eye on the program while resisting the urge to punish the law-abiding recipients with cutbacks in assistance. Since then, leaders have suggested a quicker, easier fix that we fully support: photo identification.

Requiring recipients to show ID wouldn’t eliminate these problems, but would certainly reduce them. The four-digit personal identification numbers currently in use can easily be passed from person to person. A face can’t.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, federal guidelines won’t allow photo ID requirements to be set. That’s a strange approach, considering the feds’ own struggles with debit-card fraud during the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

It’s too early to say that the scope of the FoodShare fraud demands systemic change. Eight cases were under investigation for potential prosecution at last count, with news of charges now beginning to trickle in.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with a targeted, pre-emptive strike. Whichever level of government must spearhead the change, a photo ID provision makes sense.

The program allows people to designate someone else to use the card on their behalf, and that alternate should be able to prove his or her identity, too. It’s a small price to pay in exchange for a helping hand.

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