Millions in food and cash assistance lost to card scams

Washington residents on food assistance have lost $5.5 million to electronic benefit transfer – commonly known as EBT – card reader scams in the past two years.

That’s according to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, which has tracked the scams since April 2022. The agency is taking steps to reimburse recipients for benefits they lose but described “an alarming surge in fraud.”

It began tracking the problem after officials noticed an uptick in incidents and reports, said Norah West, the agency’s spokesperson. With an upcoming round of reimbursements, West said the agency “did not receive authorization or funding” to replace benefits stolen before July 1, 2024.

EBT card reader scams happen when a thief places a device on a retailer’s card-swiping machine, allowing them to copy card information and steal benefits. Most scams the agency recorded — about 22,000 transactions out of about 33,000 — happened out of state.

The latest federal reimbursement dollars for states to replace stolen benefits are from spending legislation President Joe Biden signed in December 2022.

About $4 million of the $5.5 million in benefit losses in Washington were specifically from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Scammers also stole from recipients of state food and financial assistance, cash assistance for people with disabilities and the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Affected households have lost nearly $600 in benefits on average, according to the Department of Social and Health Services, and about 9,000 people who receive food benefits or cash assistance from the government have been affected.

The department says they’ve replaced $3 million in food benefits and processed more than 8,000 claims.

The department’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance has also launched a statewide education campaign to inform Washington’s refugee and immigrant communities about the risks of benefits fraud, with materials in 15 languages.

The reimbursement form is available online. Affected residents can also call (888) 328-9271 or visit a local DSHS Community Services Office. Interpretation services are available.

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