BALTIMORE — Money intended to help families is being stolen by thieves.
In the last six months, Maryland families have lost an estimated $286,000 in food stamps and cash assistance benefits, more than triple the amount stolen in all of 2021.
While California and D.C. are using state and local funds to replace stolen benefits, Maryland is not.
Despite a $3.6 billion state surplus, the Maryland Department of Human Services has said there are no state funds appropriated to reimburse victims of this or other types of fraud.
For victims, this has meant not paying rent for a month, relying on food banks, and hoping it doesn’t happen again.
Paris Respass is determined to beat thieves to her benefits. At the beginning of this month, the night her Temporary Cash Assistance was deposited onto her card, she was at the ATM.
“It’s 12 o’clock, I’m going to see if I can get my money off. Hopefully everything is good,” said Respass.
Respass documented her recent trip on her phone.
“Alright, I’m at the second ATM, I had to go to a different one. Apparently, it had a $200 limit,” Respass said.
She doesn't feel safe walking around with a full wallet late at night, but she's taking a chance because she knows what can happen if she waits until morning.
“When I woke up about 6, 7 o’clock in the morning, they said that my check was gone. I called back and it said all of it was taken out at an ATM on 725 Eden Street,” Respass told WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii.
Last month, thieves took $500 from Respass's account at the same ATM where $5,000 was stolen from other victims.
“About 1:36 in the morning, an ATM withdrawal of $1,000 was taken off my card from my TCA,” said Kristian Herbert, who uses her benefits to pay rent and care for her three kids and younger sister.
“Why are they not reimbursing a program that is meant for children to not go hungry?” asked Herbert.
Between January 1 and June 2022, DHS received nearly 400 reports of stolen SNAP and TCA benefits. In 2021, the agency received 137 stolen benefit reports.
In April, DHS issued a fraud alert advising customers to change their pins.
“I have changed my card, I have changed my pin, they have not given us anything to let us know that our funds will be safe and secure,” said Herbert.
The Department believes thieves are cloning and replicating cards, but it’s unclear how they're obtaining PIN numbers to withdraw cash at ATMs.
“How are they able to get our personal information and duplicate cards? I had my card in my possession, like how were they even able to do that? [They] have my social, change my pin, how were they able to do that?” asked Herbert.
And Conduent, the vendor awarded a $30 million contract by the state to issue these benefits, hasn’t yet provided customers with enhanced security features.
“I feel like we’re being treated way differently. It should be the same setup as if you had a regular bank card and there shouldn’t be no difference. The fact that we have to wait and wait and wait is not right,” said Respass.
Respass and Herbert don't trust that their money is protected, so they plan to be in line at the ATM, ready to withdraw as soon as the cash hits their account.
“I don't want to be evicted because somebody else is stealing money from me,” said Respass.
“Every third of the month, 12 o’clock, [my husband] will be down there. I’m not going because it’s Baltimore City, but he will be. He will be at that ATM at 12 o’clock until they come up with something. I don’t know what else to do,” said Herbert.
Conduent and DHS Secretary Lourdes Padilla declined WMAR-2 News’ interview requests.
In an email, Mike Ricci, Governor Hogan’s Director of Communications, wrote:
“We're familiar with your reporting and the issue, and we continue to discuss it with both the department and the federal administration. Will definitely keep you posted on any developments.”
State senators have also sought answers from DHS.
Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger has also said he's interested in drafting federal legislation to address this problem.