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Exclusive Interview: State’s new response to surge in stolen SNAP benefits

$417,000 in federal assistance benefits reported stolen last month
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Posted at 6:00 AM, Mar 14, 2023

BALTIMORE — Federal assistance benefits intended to help low-income families are being stolen, and the problem is getting worse. In Maryland, there was a gradual increase in the theft of SNAP and cash assistance starting February 2022 with just over $21,000 reported stolen. In February 2023, more than $417,000 were reported stolen to the Department of Human Services.

For the last 10 months, WMAR-2 News’ Mallory Sofastaii has reported on these stolen benefits. She recently sat down with newly sworn-in Secretary of Human Services Rafael Lopez to discuss why this is still happening and when victims will be reimbursed.

“Could there have been sooner intervention to better protect these families?” asked Sofastaii.

“Absolutely. As we think about what happened to these Marylanders, we understand this is a national problem. We actually understand that as of a couple of days ago, there were several arrests made in Los Angeles, California that were part of a sophisticated ring stealing people's benefits. That's unconscionable. How do you sleep at night stealing from people who work hard to try and make ends meet?” Lopez responded. “Governor Moore and Lieutenant Governor Miller made a choice. They made a choice of working in partnership with the General Assembly and they together are helping us figure out a solution to make Marylanders whole.”

Card skimmers and text scams are believed to be behind the nearly $2.4 million in SNAP and cash assistance stolen from Marylanders since January 2022.

The Department now requires account holders to use complex pins, but security features such as fraud alerts, card locking, and chip cards, which were discussed last October with Conduent, the state’s vendor, aren't yet in place.

“How do we get those features installed now?” asked Sofastaii.

“I can't speak to why or how those choices were not made prior to our arrival. What I can say, unabashedly, is that we're trying to consider them all right now and we will make decisions swiftly,” said Lopez.

The Department is currently in the project planning phase. According to a department spokesman, Conduent is assessing the timeline for the Card lock/Unlock capability and has committed to providing the timeline to DHS by April 8, 2023.

In the meantime, certain victims will soon be able to submit a form for replacement benefits.

The federal government passed a measure in the Omnibus Bill to reimburse victims whose SNAP benefits were stolen through card skimming, cloning, and other fraudulent methods dating back to October 1, 2022.

READ MORE: Massive spending bill includes relief for SNAP fraud victims

Maryland was the first state in the country to submit its reimbursement plan to the USDA and receive approval. The form is expected to be available to fraud victims before the end of the month. Once the system goes live, DHS expects to be able to reimburse stolen benefits for approved claims in 15 days or less.

“So that's what we're prioritizing and trying get that right, and we're going to continue to be creative and innovative in finding other solutions to date back even further, if possible,” said Lopez.

In the Maryland General Assembly, there’s a bill that Secretary Lopez testified in support of. Senate Bill 2 would replace all stolen benefits going as far back as March 2020.

RELATED: Lawmakers consider bills addressing huge spike in stolen SNAP & cash assistance

If passed, the emergency bill could become law as soon as it's approved by the governor, but first, Lopez said they need to get the first round of reimbursements right.

“So, number one, making it simple for people. Two, making it seamless. If you had both your SNAP benefits stolen and your cash benefits stolen, why am I going to make you do the same process twice on two different parts of our website that aren’t helpful? We’re not going to do that,” said Lopez. “Third, making it swift. We don't want things to take as long as it historically has at DHS. I am fully aware of our reputation on this, and I am fully engaged to working with our team to turn that around because we have a lot of hardworking staff here who sometimes get stuck with or stuck by outdated technologies. How do we use technology to our benefit to make sure it's in fact seamless, simple, and swift for all of our people?”

“With the transition to a new administration and previous vacancies, how do keep those vacancies from interfering with this process?” Sofastaii asked Lopez.

“That's a great question and I worry about that,” said Lopez. “I will say that as of this week, we have about a 13.7 percent vacancy rate but we need to have an all hands on deck moment. I expect a level of customer service that treats our people with respect and dignity.”

“When I talk to these families, they tell me that they feel like they're being treated differently because they receive federal assistance benefits. What's your response to that?” Sofastaii asked.

“Absolutely, everyone should be treated with respect and dignity. I'll give you an example. This weekend, we were in the car, my wife's ATM card was stolen virtually. Within seconds, we had an alert on text from Bank of America, within a few more seconds, she confirmed which things she had spent or not, within a few more seconds, we had a replacement Bank of America card in her iPhone. Why is it that in this country we treat people who are the recipients of public benefits different? We blame them for the inconvenience of the theft. That's not the way I want to lead this department, that's not the way I believe we should lead this country, that's not the way I believe we should treat people. So for me, it's very simple. We should expect the level of excellence and customer service for everyone regardless of where they come from, regardless of where that assistance is coming from,” Lopez responded.

WMAR-2 News has also learned that Governor Moore earmarked $11.3 million in state and federal funds as part of a plan to reimburse victims of public benefits fraud.

And Sofastaii asked Lopez about the recent reduction in SNAP benefits. On average, Maryland recipients are receiving around $170 less per month after a pandemic-era program boosting SNAP benefits ended last month.

Several states are working on proposals to raise the minimum benefit level. In Maryland, it’s currently $23. Sofastaii asked Lopez if the state is considering doing the same.

RELATED: Families search for ways to stretch SNAP benefits following major reduction

“I'll tell you it's something that I think about every day. The reductions are something that certainly impact families and we're actually trying to figure out a solution for Maryland. I will say that for the future, we're looking at innovative ways to have a minimum threshold of a system for our families and for our adults. We're not quite there yet, but absolutely there are conversations and our number one priority right now is reimbursing people for stolen benefits. We'll have a longer term strategy on how we support families and adults moving forward,” said Lopez.