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Howard County Times
Howard County

Dozens of Howard County families report food stamp theft amid nationwide uptick in electronic benefit fraud

As food prices soar across the nation, an increasingly common form of theft is targeting some of Howard County’s most vulnerable families.

Since August, dozens of Howard County recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are discovering their funds have been stolen when they try to purchase food or withdraw cash with an Electronic Benefits Transfer card. The federal assistance program provides benefits to eligible low-income individuals and families via an EBT card.

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In August, Maryland families reported more than $178,000 in stolen SNAP and cash assistance, according to the state’s Department of Human Services. That monthly figure is nearly double the $92,500 reported stolen in all of 2021.

The thefts are part of a trend nationwide and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the SNAP program, has issued several warnings about EBT scams this fall.

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“This is a nationwide issue, it’s not just something that we’re seeing in Maryland,” said J.D. Robinson, an anti-hunger program coordinator at Maryland Hunger Solutions, a nonprofit that raises awareness for food insecurity across the state. “It’s really unfortunate that it’s happening to a lot of these families.”

Between August and October, Howard County police received 44 reports of stolen SNAP benefits, department spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn said. SNAP-specific theft was so sporadic before then that the department didn’t even keep track of the crime, Llewellyn said.

The two primary ways criminals are targeting the benefits is through card skimming and phishing schemes, Robinson said. Skimming involves using a specialized device to steal card data from ATMs or point-of-sale terminals. Phishing occurs when a criminal sends fraudulent text messages or emails and poses as a trustworthy source to solicit account information.

While the forms of theft are nothing new, some officials said targeting food benefits correlates with the increase in SNAP recipients in the wake of the pandemic. Nearly 42 million Americans are participating in SNAP in 2022, compared with about 35 million in 2019, according to USDA.

“The tactics have been used by folks for a large amount of time,” Robinson said. “But unfortunately they’re preying on low income families in a time where, especially coming up to the holidays, these benefits are really, really crucial.”

‘Why did it happen to me?’

One family of Afghan refugees in Columbia had nearly $600 stolen from their EBT card at the start of October.

One of the family’s four sons, a teenager who attends a Howard County high school and wished to remain anonymous since his brother and father remain in hiding overseas, said he reported the theft to police and the Howard County Department of Social Services. He was told the funds were used by an individual in Baltimore and could not be reimbursed.

“I was so sad at the time because I thought, ‘Why are they doing that and why did it happen to me and our family?’ ” said the teenager, who arrived in the county in late 2021. “We’re new here and we’re trying to have some money for our family. ... I don’t really know what will happen this month.”

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Social services gave the family a new benefits card after the October incident, but the family said they haven’t recieved their November benefits and fear they may have been stolen also.

“This is a family that was well educated and doing quite well in Afghanistan,” said Columbia resident Patricia DeLorenzo, who is on the leadership team of Christ Church’s Refugee Ministry which serves as a sponsor for the family. “They had friends, they had professional positions. ... They left their culture, their country, all of it and took what they could carry on their backs and they came here and we’re trying to help them resettle and then their money’s stolen.”

DeLorenzo accompanied the man and his mother to the county’s social services office in October where she learned how widespread EBT thefts are throughout the region.

“I was surprised,” DeLorenzo said. “It was a bit startling to me to hear how rapid it was, how good these villains are. They’re very astute electronically, obviously.”

Anti-hunger groups push for reimbursements as investigation continues

Maryland Hunger Solutions and other anti-hunger groups are urging the USDA to create a federal reimbursement system for victims of SNAP theft.

“Unfortunately, because [SNAP] is a federally run program, in its current state, federal funds cannot be used to reimburse folks,” Robinson said.

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On Nov. 16, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat representing Maryland’s 2nd congressional district, introduced legislation amending the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to allow states to use of federal funds to relieve families whose assistance has been stolen. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture but will need to pass the House and Senate.

In the meantime, state social and human services departments, which administer SNAP benefits at the local level, have largely been left to address reimbursements.

Some states, such as California, have formal processes to report stolen SNAP benefits and issue reimbursements using their own funding sources, but Maryland has yet to do so.

Robinson says Maryland’s local EBT vendor Conduent is working to enhance security features of their cards, including the ability to lock purchases, but that’s not enough to help families who have already fallen victim to theft.

“While that’s a step in the right direction, we do really need to see some sort of reimbursement program get put in place because while that helps protect these people for the future, there’s folks that have already been damaged by this,” Robinson said.

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The Maryland Department of Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General has been coordinating with the U.S. Secret Service, the USDA, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate EBT fraud, Maryland DHS communications director Katherine Morris said.

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The Maryland DHS hosts a multilingual EBT fraud webpage that advises immediately reporting stolen funds to police, frequently changing PINs, creating strong passwords for online purchases and carefully examining card slots at ATMs to ensure they have not been tampered with.

“A lot of people that are on the SNAP program really rely on it to put food on the table,” Robinson said. “You’re going to have folks that are on a tight budget moving onto a tighter one because of this benefit theft.”

To report theft or order a new card, contact the Maryland EBT Customer Call Center at 1-800-997-2222.


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