InvestigatorsMatter for Mallory


Maryland launches new security feature to combat millions in benefit theft

Lock/unlock gives cardholders more control while state works to implement microchips
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Posted at 6:00 AM, Oct 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-03 08:49:48-04

BALTIMORE — The Maryland Department of Human Services released a new security feature to better protect food and cash assistance after millions of dollars were stolen by thieves.

“It was the day my mom had just got the money put on. I'm like, ‘What the hell is going on? I know there should be money on there,'” said Christina Kilby, who does her mom’s grocery shopping.

Back in July, while she was in the checkout line, Kilby learned the SNAP benefits on her mom’s EBT card had been stolen.

“That's what's scary, is you had the card, and it's like how can someone steal something when you've got the card?” asked Esther Schirmacher, Kilby’s mother.

Schirmacher immediately reported the theft to the Baltimore City Department of Social Services.

“They found out it was somebody out in California,” she said.

And while the $91 doesn't buy much, it does help them get by. “I mean it doesn't go far, but far enough that you're not taking advantage of the situation,” said Schirmacher.

This is the story for thousands of others. State lawmakers passed a law earlier this year to make these victims whole, and as of September 12, DHS has approved 22,070 submitted claims and reimbursed $13 million in stolen food and cash benefits to Maryland households.

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

That same law lays out security measures to better prevent thefts due to electronic skimming including allowing cardholders to place limits on the use of their cards.

“We have implemented a new feature, which is an easy, accessible feature, it's called lock/unlock,” said Carnitra White, principal deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Human Services.

Cardholders can access it by downloading the ConnectEBT app on their phone.

“And if you're at the store, and you want to make a transaction, you unlock your card. And then as soon as you finish that transaction, you lock your card. You are able to safely protect your benefits this way,” White added.

This new safeguard could potentially stop theft if cardholders know about it, have a phone, and use the app.

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii asked Conduent, the state's vendor delivering EBT payments, how many cardholders have downloaded the app. A spokesperson did not answer her question but said Conduent operates EBT programs in 23 states, and the lock/unlock feature is now available in Maryland and Ohio with four other states soon to follow.

White said the Department is doing strong outreach through emails, social media, and community-based partners. Even so, a major security component is still lacking – microchips, which prevent skimmers from capturing card information. A DHS spokesperson confirmed they're working on that. “We want Marylanders to have the same protections you and I have when we go to our bank and when we use our bank card,” said White.

State law also mandates this feature on or after October 1, 2023. A DHS spokesperson said they recently put out a request for proposal for a vendor who provides chip cards or similar technology.

“We want to ensure that Marylanders who are in need of our benefits have the money to meet their very basic needs. And that's why we continue to have these conversations with our vendors with our federal government partners, in order to make sure that the best technological solutions are there,” said White.

Currently, no state issues SNAP EBT cards with microchips. DHS said their goal is to be the first state in the nation to do so.

In the meantime, cardholders only receiving cash assistance can request that money be direct deposited into their checking or savings accounts so they can use their bank's debit card security features, however, this isn't available to SNAP recipients.

Sofastaii was also told that the state will soon offer EBT transaction alerts via email and text message.

To file a claim for stolen benefits, click here.

And click here to learn more about the lock/unlock feature and how to download the ConnectEBT app.

According to DHS, the ConnectEBT app by Conduent Inc. is available for free in both the Apple and Android app stores. Avoid using third-party apps that offer coupons and require login information. These may be fake apps used by criminals to steal benefits.