Ingrid Brown relies on her state-issued electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to buy food. But recently, the money on the card disappeared. All $381.
“I feel upset. And it’s wrong. Because people are going hungry,” she said.
Brown was confused when she learned the money was spent at a grocery store in New York. The I-Team has heard similar stories from other EBT card recipients. Sean Ostriker saw $280 vanish from his card; that money was also spent in New York.
“It sucks that the state is supposed to be providing these benefits to the people who need it, and it’s instead going to scammers with seemingly no end in sight,” he said.
USC professor and security expert Clifford Neuman said thieves are stealing the money using a skimmer, a device they attach to ATMs or point-of-sale terminals at grocery stores recipients’ use. Once the thieves have the money, it can be spent anywhere.
“Someone has a skimmer. They steal the information on these cards. And then they post it on the dark web. They sell it to others on the dark web. So the fact that the card is here in California and used somewhere else, is actually quite typical,” said Neuman.
The state government funds the cards and doesn’t deny the problem. When the I-Team first reported the ongoing fraud in November, the state told us thieves had stolen nearly $24 million in one year from EBT cards. Since then, that number has gone up another $10 million.
NBCLA I-Team investigative reporters break local news on stories that affect our community directly. Here are the latest investigations out of LA and SoCal.
LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis is hearing about the problem from her constituents.
“That impacts a lot of people who are really in dire situations,” she said.
Solis said adding chip technology to EBT cards would make it harder for thieves to swipe the funds. The state has budgeted for chip-enabled cards, but that’s two years away. Solis is calling for change now.
“Hopefully we can get legislators and the governor to all come to an agreement to expedite this and get it out in a faster manner,” she said.
The I-Team reached out to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to ask if they’re prioritizing chip-enabled cards, but we didn’t get a response.
Solis is also trying to eliminate the hoops recipients have to jump through to get their stolen money reimbursed, like filing police reports.
Brown said she filed three claims and a police report, and finally got her money back, but it took several stressful weeks.
“I think they should take it more personally. Like it’s theirs. What if it was you or your mother or somebody who couldn’t eat or don’t really have the means or don’t have the right in their mind or heart to ask for help. What if it was them?” she said.
Tips to keep your EBT money safe
- Fidget with ATM and POS terminals to make sure there isn’t a skimming device attached. If you find one, report it by calling 800-222-TIPS.
- Never respond to texts or calls about your EBT card, even concerning ones that say your card has been locked. These are likely scammers trying to steal your money.
- Watch more tips here.