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A race to the ATM: Families having to beat thieves to their own food and cash assistance

Victims say the state isn't helping them
stolen benefits folo.png
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-14 11:50:59-04

BALTIMORE — Thieves are stealing money given to families through federal assistance programs. Hours after SNAP and cash benefits are deposited onto their EBT cards, it’s taken from their accounts.

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii reported on this spike in stolen benefits and how the Maryland Department of Human Services is not reimbursing victims.

RELATED: Families are losing food and cash assistance to thieves; state says it’s unable to replace benefits

An agency spokesperson said it’s not able to reimburse victims with federal funds, however, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger’s office confirmed that states have the ability to replace benefits with local or state funds. The D.C. Department of Human Services is currently doing this.

Meanwhile, the problem is getting worse.

“The whole room, the whole building, it sounded like bingo in there,” Jamee A. recalled from her visit to the Baltimore City Department of Social Services Penn-North Center.

Except no one wants to apart of this game. The board is reserved for victims whose food or cash assistance benefits were stolen.

“Someone was like, ‘They just took a whole $800 from me.’ A girl said, ‘You too? They got me for [$600].’ And I’m sitting in the back and I’m like, ‘No baby, they got me for $2,200.’ The whole room got quiet,” said Jamee, who asked that we not use her last name.

Jamee’s Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) was swiped twice. Two months in a row at the same ATM.

It first happened on May 1 at the Wells Fargo ATM located at 725 Eden Street in Harbor East at 1:36 a.m. And it happened again on June 2 at 2:38 a.m. Both times, Jamee said she was asleep with the card in her possession.

WMAR-2 News has received emails from several other victims who had their benefits taken at this same ATM, including two women who lost over $1,400.

The Baltimore Police Department confirmed it’s received reports from four people between April 2 and May 2 who lost more than $2,200. Economic Crimes believes it’s the work of the same person who skimmed then cloned the victims’ cards.

Combined with emails WMAR-2 News has received from other victims, the total exceeds $5,000 taken at this one location.

“What’s going on? And now mind you, I have a whole new card, a whole new pin,” said Jamee.

And this isn’t a game. That money is reserved for basic living expenses.

“Bills. We eat with it until the food stamps do come. There were a lot of people down there and a lot of them were upset because their refrigerators and stuff were empty,” Jamee said.

Stephany Deloatch uses her money to care for her five kids, but this month someone across the country snatched it from her.

“’[I had] $940 taken off my card at 1:13 a.m. in the morning in Los Angeles, California,” said Deloatch.

She called the number on the back of her Independence card and said a customer service representative told her that there were several attempted transactions before it went through.

“When the transaction isn’t getting approved, shouldn’t the card lock?” asked Deloatch.

The Maryland Department of Human Services is warning customers about this spike in fraudulent activity.

WMAR-2 News obtained data showing an increase in reports every month. Last May, there were 11 reported cases. This May, there were more than 109. Around 800,000 families receive benefits in Maryland.

State senators are now turning their attention to this issue.

On June 8, Senator Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) sent DHS Secretary Lourdes Padilla a letter expressing his concerns about the recent influx in fraud cases and the state's response. He wrote in part:

"Marylanders are currently being deprived of the provisions they need to survive, and the State is being robbed of its own resources. Our citizens are not only in need of justice: they need transparency and initiative. SNAP recipients should not be burdened with sacrificing basic household necessities and implementing meticulous security measures because the Department of Human Services fails to reasonably respond. These citizens need our help the most."

The Department acknowledged receipt of his letter, but hasn't yet responded.

Senator Katie Fry Hester (D- Howard & Carroll Counties) is the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology, and Biotechnology, and met with DHS following WMAR-2 News’ initial report on this issue.

“I personally think that the state should explore how we can make these people whole again. There’s nothing that prevents the state from spending state money at a time that we have a $7 billion surplus to reimburse these folks,” Hester said.

And she has questions for Conduent, the vendor that supplies EBT cards.

“Why don’t they stop at the first sign of an illegal withdrawal? Why don’t they stop it and reimburse the victims?” Hester asked.

She’s now waiting for answers from Conduent and DHS.

“I don’t plan to let this go because it’s money that belongs to the people of Maryland who need it,” Hester said.

Sofastaii also sent a list of questions to DHS and Conduent.

A Conduent spokesperson didn’t directly answer questions pertaining to increased security, but wrote:

“The privacy and security of cardholders’ information is critically important to Conduent, and we have strong measures in place for our clients to help prevent fraudulent activity, complying with all regulations and in line with industry standards. We also take all suspected incidents of fraud very seriously, and we work in partnership with our clients and provide tools needed to report and track such instances. As the Department of Human Services has said, there has been a reported increase nationally in attempts by fraudsters to target EBT and other benefit programs, and the State of Maryland is working with federal authorities to investigate and hopefully catch and prosecute the offenders.”

DHS Secretary Lourdes Padilla declined to speak with Sofastaii. WMAR-2 News is also waiting for responses to questions sent last week.

DHS has said it directs victims to other resources like the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but to qualify, Deloatch said she was told she'd need to wait for an eviction notice.

“That has never been me. My rent is always on time and if it’s not on time, it’s ahead of time,” said Deloatch.

Jamee said she was turned away at the DHS office along with a group of other victims.

“They aren’t saying nothing but there’s nothing we can do,” Jamee said.

With unreliable security and no fraud protection, customers only other option is to get to their money first.

“All I know is that 11:59 p.m. next month, I’m going to be at the ATM,” said Jamee.

And if they lose, it’s on them to make it to the next month.

“I wake up every morning crying and figuring out a way to put my pride to the side to ask for help,” Deloatch said.

Congressman Ruppersberger’s Office added that it’s concerned that no one is really quantifying the scope of the problem at the federal level. They are now exploring legislative solutions to clarify to states that federal law does not prohibit victim reimbursement.

If you are the victim of this crime, you’re advised to take the steps below:

  • Report any EBT fraud to your local police department and submit a copy of the police report to your Local Department of Social Services.
  • Contact your local elected officials. You can find their information by clicking here. Type in your address under the "lookup" tab and you'll have the option to email all the checked legislators.
  • Fill-out this form if you’re interested in speaking with Mallory about this issue.
  • Change your PIN often. You can do that today by calling the number on the back of your EBT card. You can also change your PIN online.
  • If you use your benefits for online purchases, be sure that you have a strong password (one that is not easy to guess). You are also advised to change your password at least once every three months.
  • Use only a USDA-approved payment vendor to make cash transactions. For information on USDA approved vendors, click here.
  • If you are using an ATM, examine the card slot to ensure it has not been tampered with before inserting your card.
  • If your benefits have already been compromised, call your local Department of Social Services to freeze the use of your card. This will prevent new unauthorized transactions on your card.
  • If your card has been stolen or lost, you must call the Maryland EBT Customer Call Center at 1-800-997-2222 to order a replacement card. When activating the replacement card, please be sure to create a unique PIN number (avoid reusing the old PIN). Maryland EBT Customer Call Center at 1-800-997-2222 is accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • Customers who need assistance may use this link that provides a tracking number.