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Families struggling to feed their children and struck by fraud face a double hardship

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is paid for by the federal government, helps feed almost a million people in Cook County. One of them is Ana Salgado.

Salgado is a single mom with four kids. She is divorced and works as a store manager, but she doesn’t make enough money to feed her family. She sometimes uses her SNAP benefits to make ends meet.

At the beginning of a recent month, she bought about $200 worth of groceries on the day that her SNAP money usually became available. At the register, she got a shock.

She remembers that when she went to pay, the clerk told her, “Nothing is in there. It says $0.”

Salgado gets about $400 a month on average. Including the benefits she didn’t use, she should have had more than $800 on her Link card that June day.

Link is an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. SNAP funds are given out using EBT cards.

The Illinois Link card can be used like a credit or debit card, but it does not have the same protections against fraud.

Salgado was shocked to find that her whole balance had been taken away. Salgado said, “I was just so shocked.” I had no idea what to do.

SNAP FRAUD

Who took Salgado’s money and things?

Fraud experts think it was a hacker who stole Salgado’s money by taking control of his Link card and spending all of the money on it.

“We’re hearing more and more about large-scale fraud where poor families’ benefits are stolen,” said Ellen Vollinger, director of SNAP for the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC).

Vollinger thinks that SNAP ID thieves use methods like those used by credit card skimmers. She said, “There is a very well-planned operation going on.”

“Places all over the country use equipment that can’t be seen. Stores don’t always know when something has been put in their store or elsewhere.”

How often do people steal SNAP cards?

It’s hard to say because this kind of fraud isn’t being kept track of. On the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) website, people like Salgado can file a fraud report.

The Link card and SNAP programs are run by IDHS, which is a state agency.

When CBS 2’s investigators asked IDHS how many complaints there had been about this kind of fraud, they told them to contact the Department of Health and Family Services (IDHFS).

We asked that agency for public records about fraud complaints, but they said those records aren’t public by state law.

In a follow-up email, IDHS said, “These disagreements are not kept track of separately from disagreements in general.”

Fraud is only mentioned in annual state reports when it’s the fault of the vendor/provider or the recipient to misuse and abuses the system.

A person who works at the company but doesn’t want to be named out of fear of retaliation told us about this new type of fraud:

“We had a few clients come in at certain times and say, ‘Hey, I had so much on my Link card, and now I only have 50 cents.'”

The insider thought it was strange that there were so many of these reports in their office: “I would see maybe five to ten victims that day.”

SNAP BENEFITS NOT REPLACED

The person who told us was upset that caseworkers have no choice but to replace a client’s card.

The state did give CBS 2 information about how many replacement cards had been given out over time. Some cards need to be replaced because they were lost or stolen.

It doesn’t count if you’ve been a victim of fraud. The money is not replaced when a card is.

“I had to tell them the bad news,” the insider said about clients who were devastated when they found out all of their money was gone. “I knew that it wouldn’t be changed.”

Salgado was in precisely this kind of situation. She said that when she heard she wouldn’t get that money back, she felt like crying.

She said, “At that moment, I knew I wouldn’t have enough money to buy food for the whole month.”

When scammers are to blame, federal dollars are taken away from programs like unemployment benefits and given to others.

But federal law says that people who have their SNAP benefits stolen can’t get their money back.

Eva Velasquez, President and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center said, “We do think that there should be a way to make up for the money that is lost because of identity fraud” (ITRC).

ITRC is a group that helps people who have been scammed. FRAC’s Vollinger agrees.

Vollinger said, “Where there are breaches, policymakers will have to figure out how to protect SNAP customers and ensure they get the benefits they need.”

SNAP FRAUD SOLUTIONS?

Amanda D’Amico, an expert on theft at Thomson Reuters, said that Congress needs to do something.

“They need to change the rules about SNAP benefits and how to make up for benefits lost because of identity theft.”

On November 4, 2022, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) filed a class action suit.

In it, MLRI says that thieves have taken more than $1 million in SNAP benefits from thousands of families since the summer.

The goal of the lawsuit is to get the state to use chip technology to make EBT cards safer and to get back any benefits that scammers stole.

Rep. Ruppersberger from Maryland is trying to change the law as part of other efforts. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, wants to work on similar legislation.

We tried to get in touch with his office this summer, and they sent us this email:

“The hackers who hurt SNAP recipients through no fault of their own should pay them back.

Senator Durbin is open to any way to make sure that SNAP recipients can feed their families, and our office has reached out to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Department of Human Services to talk about how to stop fraud in the future.”

State Rep. Sonya Harper, a Democrat from the 6th District in Illinois, also wants to change the law there.

She tells us that she is looking into whether stolen SNAP money can be replaced with money from the state.

The first step has already been taken. Harper said, “I’ve already asked the LRB [Legislative Reference Bureau] to start looking into this kind of fraud in the state of Illinois.”

Once it is clear how much money scammers have stolen from SNAP, Rep. Harper can focus on making up for the money that has been lost.

“That is a request of mine,” she said. “We need to figure out how to pay these people back on time so they can get their benefits in the month they were stolen from.”

IDHS says it has taken steps this year because other states have reported more scammer fraud. For example, it has met with the USDA at several roundtables to talk about what those states are doing to stop the rise.

IDHS also switched to Fidelity Information Systems as its new Link Card provider (FIS).

IDHS told us in an email, “A big difference between FIS and other providers is that FIS’ EBT Fraud Solutions team works every day with FIS’ global electronic funds (EFT) fraud teams to learn about new and emerging fraud schemes that will move to the EBT world.”

IDHS also said that the new FIS Link cards sent out in August have a new feature that lets people use an app to freeze and unfreeze their cards.

IDHS says that this feature helps cut down on fraudulent transactions.

Source: News Break

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