Families lose food and cash assistance to thieves; state says unable to replace benefits

BALTIMORE – Families in need of food and cash assistance are losing their benefits to thieves. Their monthly allocations are withdrawn from their accounts just hours after being deposited.

This fraud forces victims to make tough decisions like not paying rent or having to cut back on their food. And while this is a national problem, states handle it differently.

In Maryland, the Department of Social Services (DHS) said it could not reimburse victims, but WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii has learned that other jurisdictions have found a way to do so.

Sofastaii spoke to two victims whose temporary cash assistance benefits were withdrawn from the same ATM, nearly a month apart.

“It was posted on my card at 12 p.m. on April 3. On April 3 at 5:42 a.m. it was removed,” Ciarra McMahan said.

Frances Ames saw an unauthorized transaction on her account on May 2 while her Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card was in her possession.

“I noticed that my money was withdrawn from my card at 1:47 a.m. at Wells Fargo Bank in South Eden Street,” Ames said.

Ames’ neighbor reported that her benefits had also been stolen two minutes earlier from the same ATM in Harbor East.

Ames is now at $650. McMahan, a mother of three, lost $780. Both women contacted Sofastaii for help.

“You know, I had to pay rent. I have to take care of myself and my child. I have an 11-year-old daughter,” Ames said.

When these women reported the thefts to DHS Maryland, they were told the money was missing and would not be replaced.

“These programs are funded by the federal government. Under federal regulations, as a state, we are unable to replace the benefit for that particular month or months that were stolen,” said La Sherra Ayala, executive director of the Family Investment Administration for the Maryland DHS, at WMAR-2 News.

Ayala said her agency connects these victims with other resources, such as emergency rental assistance from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), other food banks, food pantries and food programs, the DHS Emergency Cash Assistance Program or the Baltimore State’s Attorney. Victims’ Emergency Fund, which compensates victims of crime.

“I don’t see why they don’t replace him. Why are they connecting us to resources if the money has been stolen from them? asked McMahan.

Helping through these various programs can take time, more paperwork and extra hoops when these families need these benefits now.

“And then when I try to go get help or try to reach out to someone, it’s like I’m being chased,” Ames said.

Stolen Perks Spike
Reports of fraud in Maryland have increased. There were 93 cases reported to Maryland DHS in April 2022, compared to 8 cases the previous year.

In 2021, the agency received 141 reports. This year, as of May 9, there were already 290 reported cases. About 800,000 families receive benefits through these assistance programs.

Benefits fraud is a national problem. Fraudsters use electronic devices to skim or clone information from EBT cards. Victims do not know when or how their information is compromised and they are not protected when the money is taken.

The DC Department of Social Services has also alerted its customers to an increase in stolen benefits, except they are reimbursing victims with local funds.

The Maryland DHS argues that it cannot replace the stolen funds because federal regulations do not allow it.

A DHS spokeswoman sent Sofastaii a link to a specific section of these federal regulations stating that a state may override program benefits when food is destroyed in a family misfortune, but it does not address situations where benefits are stolen, nor does it say that a state cannot replace benefits with its own funds.

Sofastaii learned that Maryland DHS had replaced temporary cash benefits for a limited number of victims, but it stopped because “there are no funds earmarked for this purpose.” The agency declined to say how many victims were helped and the amount.

“You know, the thing is, these are your citizens in your city, in your state, and right now money is being taken away from us,” Ames said.

Sofastaii also specifically asked DHS what prevents them from using state and local funds such as the $7.5 billion budget surplus to reimburse victims. A spokesperson replied:

“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a Federal program and, as noted, Federal regulations do not permit the reissuance of SNAP benefits that were stolen using Federal funds, pursuant to 7 CFR 274.6(a) ( 3).… The Department of Human Services also works in conjunction with the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the US Department of Health and Human Services OIG, and our Department of Human Services OIG, as well as the Office of the Attorney General of our Department of Human Services, in order to investigate this and hopefully catch and prosecute the offenders.In addition, we have launched an educational outreach campaign to inform our recipients of pay attention to where they slip and pay close attention to the devices themselves, as well as tips and steps they can take to protect their cards.”
– Katherine Morris, Director of Communications, Maryland Department of Social Services

Sofastaii has been in contact with the office of Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger who is currently looking into this matter.

Below are the steps DHS recommends customers take now to better protect their personal information and EBT cards:

  • Change your PIN often. You can do this today by calling the number on the back of your EBT card. You can also change your PIN online at www.connectebt.com/mdebtclient
  • If your benefits have already been compromised, call your local Department of Social Services to “freeze” your card use. This will prevent further unauthorized transactions on your card.
  • If your card has been stolen or lost, you must call the Maryland EBT Customer Call Center at 1-800-997-2222 to order a replacement card. When activating the replacement card, be sure to create a unique PIN code. Avoid reusing the old PIN.
  • Report any EBT fraud immediately to your local police department and submit a copy of the police report to your local Department of Social Services
  • Stay up to date with SNAP SCAM alerts from the USDA’s Federal Food and Nutrition Service
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