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Huge spike in benefit fraud; MD families robbed by thieves in other states

Over $178k in SNAP & cash assistance reported stolen in August
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Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-20 07:42:13-04

BALTIMORE — On Tuesday afternoon, state lawmakers will question the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Human Services about stolen federal assistance benefits and recertification issues.

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii has reported extensively on thieves swiping SNAP and cash assistance benefits before families can access their funds.

According to DHS, in August, more than $178,000 in SNAP and cash assistance were reported stolen, triple the amount for the month prior. Since January 1, 2022, there's been $522,000 in reported losses. For all of 2021, $92,500 was reported stolen.

“I woke up on [September] 3rd, I’m pregnant, went to call my card and found out that my benefits were swiped,” said Courtney Obee, whose Temporary Cash Assistance benefits were withdrawn in Miami, two hours after they were deposited into her account. “They took $1,300, $1,320 to be exact.”

For Erika Johnson, a mom of five, it happened a day later. Her account activity shows someone spent her $460 in food stamps at a BJ’s in Tampa and withdrew $1,110 at a Tampa Target store.

“Florida? I’ve never even been to Florida personally myself, so I’m not understanding how it happened,” said Johnson.

These women say they never left the state, their cards stayed in their possession, and they did not share their card information with anyone else.

“It’s a hurtful feeling. I made promises to my kids and others I was unable to keep, so it’s hard,” said Johnson.

The Maryland Department of Human Services told both women to file a police report, but refused to replace those funds.

“They’re telling us it’s federal funding, there’s nothing they can do, but I feel like if you’ve known about this and it has been happening and people are calling in complaining about it, you’re not taking any action towards it,” said Obee.

Many people have complained.

The reported losses since 2021 exceed $614,000.

In the last month, a total of $178,430 in federal assistance were stolen, including $45,643 in Temporary Cash Assistance and $132,788 in SNAP benefits.

WMAR-2 News obtained a DHS internal memo from January 6, 2021 that states EBT card cloning is being investigated. Department employees cannot reissue stolen SNAP benefits, but it can replace cash benefits if the victim files a police report.

A year later, on April 5, 2022, the Department changed its policy, no longer permitting cash benefit replacements. WMAR-2 News asked DHS why this change was made and by whom. The Department hasn’t yet responded.

“It’s not fair at all, I have a family. How can I support my family without my benefits?” asked Johnson.

And there are no security features that can help victims better protect their funds.

“They tell you to change your pin, I changed my pin a week prior to this happening,” Obee said.”You’re not making it so we can lock our cards to where our benefits are safe, the benefits can be loaded but can’t be taken off. There’s nothing being done.”

“We go to rent programs and different things so that we can be able to receive our benefits, so I feel like we should be protected as if this was Bank of America or Wells Fargo or something like that. I feel like we should be protected just as they are,” said Johnson.

WMAR-2 News brought this issue to the attention of state and federal lawmakers.

“Thank you for your coverage of this issue. I think it has been, unfortunately, one of the under told stories of what we are seeing happen as part of the post-pandemic,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii at an August 15 news conference.

Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Finance Committee plans to question DHS Secretary Lourdes Padilla about this spike in crime and help for victims.

“What we know is that these are the most vulnerable families in Maryland and it’s unacceptable that what we are seeing happen with their benefit acquisition and the money stolen from them,” Ferguson said. “It seems like government has failed to uphold its end of the bargain to make sure those who need it get what they need to survive.”

The Department has said it can’t use federal funds to reimburse victims, however, it can use state money but hasn’t identified a funding source.

And through public records requests Sofastaii learned that in D.C., between March and July, the District’s Department of Human Services reimbursed victims over $417,000 in stolen TANF and SNAP benefits using local funds.

With this huge spike in August, Sofastaii also asked the Department what they’re doing to secure these funds and if Conduent, the vendor hired to facilitate the EBT program, has implemented any new security features.

A DHS spokeswoman sent Sofastaii the statement below:

"DHS is evaluating several enhanced security measures that will be implemented to address the EBT card cloning crime. For example, DHS is working with the vendor on enhanced PIN requirements. This security measure requires the customer to use a strong PIN pin, and the system will not accept a weak PIN. Another possible measure is enhanced Interactive Voice Response ( IVR) to block certain phone numbers that criminals use to attempt to check the balances of stolen cards. Additional security measures are also being evaluated."

The department did not say when these measures would be implemented, but increasing the security of the EBT card is a priority.

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