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As EBT theft continues, proposal could change Maryland’s reimbursement policy

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 05, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-05 17:22:02-05

BALTIMORE — More than 32,000 Maryland households have been reimbursed over $20 million in stolen SNAP and cash assistance, according to the Department of Human Services. This money, which is designated for anti-poverty programs and meant to help families afford food and basic bills, is being stolen by thieves using electronic skimming devices.

RELATED: Scripps News survey finds $70M stolen from food assistance program

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii first started reporting on this issue in May 2022. At the time, the Department’s policy under the Hogan Administration was to deny reimbursement of benefits. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly and Governor Wes Moore passed a law mandating reimbursements for stolen EBT benefits, however, the department is now seeking a change.

House Bill 1434, sponsored by Delegate Robbyn Lewis (D-Baltimore City), proposes adding a stipulation that reimbursements be subject to the limitations of the state budget.

Michelle Madaio, director of economic justice for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, worries the language would roll back reimbursement protections if the Department runs out of money.

“If there was no funding, or if the funding that was put aside for reimbursement ran out after the first month of the fiscal year, that family would get denied even though they experienced a valid theft and don't have any food,” said Madaio.

Sofastaii asked Maryland Secretary of Human Services Rafael Lopez what would happen if this were the case and the bill were approved.

“We would actually hold reimbursements for a moment if we didn't have any funds to do so because you want to make sure that we have a source of revenue,” Secretary Lopez responded.

But he stressed that’s not what they intend to do. Maryland was the first in the nation to submit their reimbursement plan to the federal government and to receive approval.

Lopez said the bill stems from concerns over federal funding, which made up roughly 64 percent of the $20 million reimbursed, and whether the same level of funding will be available in the future.

"In this potentially contentious presidential election year, we're not sure if we'll actually have either a Farm Bill that includes funding for the reimbursement of stolen benefits, or a budget that includes them. And so, we are concerned that the federal portion of the funding that we've used, in addition to State of Maryland general fund dollars to reimburse benefits will be included. And so, we want to make sure that we have, we're planning thoughtfully and that we do everything we can to continue reimbursing stolen benefits. In fact, the governor has proposed over $27 million in the FY25 budget," said Lopez. "We hope that the legislature is going to approve the governor's budget. And if we do that, we will be just fine. So, we don't intend to pause anything but we have to be thoughtful and fiscally responsible."

While this bill focuses on funding, theft is still occurring.

Gregory Davis contacted the Department after he learned his monthly SNAP allotment, which he uses to buy food for him and his kids, had been cut from $152 to just $35.

“Going to the market, $30 isn’t getting you much,” said Davis.

He reached out to Madaio for assistance, who found his benefits were improperly reduced, and contacted the Department on his behalf. A few months later, they reversed their decision and issued him over $300 in back pay. That was on February 9. Davis didn’t know about the deposit for several days. When he checked the balance, nothing was there.

“That's when they noticed that my stamps were stolen,” said Davis.

Transaction statements show on February 12 someone spent his money in Bentonville, Arkansas. And on December 8, another $152 was used by someone in North Hollywood, California.

“What are we supposed to do? We use a pin code. If nobody knows your information, they shouldn’t be able to get it,” Davis said.

The Department implemented new security features such as card lock and unlock, requires more complex pins, blocks fraudulent phone numbers, and added account activity alerts, but EBT cards still lack the security of a microchip.

In a report issued to the General Assembly in December, the Department said it could take 18 months to implement this now standard security feature available to most bank and credit card holders.

“I have said repeatedly from the very beginning that I would expect that our customers would have a chip feature just the way you and I have on our credit cards and our bank cards. I can't speak to why it had not been done in the past. I know that moving forward, that is our intention,” said Lopez.

No state disbursing EBT benefits currently offers microchips. California is reportedly working to offer them by May 2024. Maryland is in the process of awarding a contract to a vendor that will implement this technology.

In the meantime, it comes at a cost to families whose benefits are swiped before they can use them, and to taxpayers.

A hearing on HB1434 was held on Tuesday in the House of Delegates. The bill hasn’t yet been introduced in the Senate. The bill also proposes creating a workgroup that'll make recommendations to the General Assembly on a dedicated funding stream for the restoration of stolen benefits from certain assistance programs.

Cardholders are able to access the card lock-unlock feature by downloading the ConnectEBT app. Click here for information.

And anyone who receives cash benefits can choose to get that money directly deposited into their bank account and use a debit card with a microchip, however, this isn't available to SNAP recipients.

Click here to file a reimbursement claim.

And for more information on protecting your EBT benefits, the Department has provided this resource page.