CHICAGO (CBS) – Illinois residents who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to feed themselves and their families are now being refunded the money stolen by fraudsters.
Elizabeth Fandl lives in Berwyn. She was one of those targeted by thieves. She is on a fixed income and she really depends on the SNAP money she gets every month.
“I rely on it for food,” she said.
One day, a few months ago, she checked her Link Card balance and found that all her money had suddenly disappeared.
“I had it in my bag when I found out it had zero on it,” she said.
The last amount she received in late February was more than $200, the last time she received the pandemic-boosted amount.
Her transaction history showed the deposit and a few minor transactions over the next few days.
But then an unusual transaction appeared. A transaction she says was not made.
“I was angry, I was upset and I was scared,” she said.
The unauthorized transaction was for $181.75 at a store near her home. She immediately reported the theft to the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), which oversees the SNAP program.
“And they said we’re looking into that. There’s been a lot of hacking and you’ve definitely been hacked.”
Fandl isn’t the only person in Illinois who has fallen victim to hackers.
Trey Daly is the director of the Public Benefits Practice Group for legal aid in Chicago.
“We keep seeing people whose SNAP has been stolen. The most recent case we’ve seen is from June,” Daly said.
IDHS acknowledged that it received 5,000 reports of fraud between August 2022 and early July 2023.
Nationwide SNAP benefits stolen by scammers have skyrocketed, according to data analytics firm LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
Haywood Talcove is the general manager of the government division of the organization.
“The number of stolen cards from the food chain has risen from 18,000 in the fourth quarter to more than 250,000 police reports since then,” Talcove said.
How do thieves steal the benefits of Link or other Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards?
“Their card was stolen because a skimmer was placed on one of those POS (point of sale) terminals or because a bot was used to steal their card number.”
There is finally good news for the hundreds of thousands who fell victim to the thieves.
Some of that stolen money is now being returned to the people who need it most.
THE REFUND PROCESS
Federal Omnibus legislation passed in December that allocated $153 billion for the entire SNAP program required states to devise and implement a way to reimburse recipients who report fraud.
The first state to approve and implement its plan was Maryland in March.
Maryland Governor Wes Moore announced that 6,800 claims had been approved and more than $4 million had been reimbursed to SNAP program participants in the first month.
Illinois’ plan was not approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) until two months later, in May.
The state began accepting claims on July 3.
SNAP State Plan Replacements of Benefits by Alex Ortiz on Scribd
Anyone who has previously reported fraud to IDHS must submit a formal EBT Theft Claim form. IDHS has started reaching out to some of those people. Claims can be submitted online here, in person at an office, or by phone at 1-800-843-6154.
Once submitted and approved, SNAP recipients should receive their compensation
Despite this solution for recovering stolen benefits, some concerns remain.
For example, the compensation program covers fraud between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2024.
That’s not long enough, according to Trey Daly of Legal Aid Chicago. “We also have about 25 pre-October 1 customers who have experienced theft, and so far no help has been made available to them.”
U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (IL-09) echoed Daly’s concerns and is concerned that the repayment requirement is only temporary.
“I see that as a two-year window for us to make it permanent through legislation in Congress,” Schakowsky said.
A bigger concern for Talcove, the fraud expert, is that the refund program helps the most vulnerable people after they’ve been hacked and hurt, not before.
“You can’t keep using a magnetic stripe card. That technology dates back to the 1970s,” he said. “Nobody in their right mind today, with all the fraud going on, would allow a financial transaction to interact with that type of card.”
Talcove would like to see EBT cards with the same more secure chip technology that credit cards have and shop machines that can accept chip-enabled cards.
“That authentication and that encryption prevents the number and password from being stolen,” he said.
In its repayment plan, IDHS noted, “In addition, Illinois is currently in discussions with the EBT vendor, FIS, about what additional preventative measures are available.”
Illinois’ EBT vendor, FIS, wouldn’t say whether it’s considering putting chips in Link cards.
CBS 2 found that Illinois is one of five states selected to participate in an FNS pilot program called Mobile Contactless Payment. That program would allow SNAP recipients to pay in stores by holding their phone against the payment terminal instead of swiping their card.
The FNS says the pilot is not expected to start until August 2024 in Illinois.