The new legislation comes as a class action lawsuit was filed in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of thousands of Massachusetts families who had SNAP benefits stolen from their accounts and are seeking a refund.
“We are really pleased that Congress is stepping up to provide some relief to families who have been harmed by burglary-related thefts,” said Betsy Gwin, senior attorney with the Massachusetts Institute for Law Reform, an organization non profit. “We think this is a really positive step.”
However, the positive effects would be limited, Gwin said. More than 5,000 households in Massachusetts reported $1.6 million in stolen SNAP benefits from June 2022 through November 2022, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, the agency named in the lawsuit that oversees the state’s SNAP program.
The reimbursement funds would only cover a fraction of the victim households, Gwin said.
“It won’t cover the losses experienced by all Massachusetts households,” Gwin said. “Many of the individuals and families we have spoken to over the past several months had their benefits stolen prior to October 2022, and will not be covered by this federal provision.”
Electronic thefts have increased so much in recent months that the US Department of Agriculture, which funds the program, issued a warning about SNAP theft in late October. Scammers “skim” EBT cards through a hard-to-detect device inserted into a card reader, allowing them to clone the card, stealing the card number and PIN.
Natahlie Rahmsay, 71, a plaintiff in the class action who lives with her 34-year-old disabled son in Boston, would see no relief under the new legislation because her funds were stolen in July.
When Rahmsay went to America’s Food Basket and tried to buy $91 worth of groceries on July 11, she discovered her account didn’t have enough funds to cover it. He later found out that someone spent $399.84 from his account. on July 2 at a Sam’s Club in Cicero, Illinois.
Rahmsay is not a member of Sam’s Club, nor has he ever been to Cicero, Ill.
“Losing nearly $400 in SNAP in July strained Ms. Rahmsay’s finances,” the lawsuit says.
Rahmsay has struggled to regain her financial footing since then, putting off paying for some things and using her and her son’s limited disability income to buy food, according to the lawsuit.
EBT cards are not covered by federal protections that greatly protect credit and debit cardholders from fraud.
“This is a despicable crime that really targets the most vulnerable among us,” U.S. Representative from Maryland Charles Albert “Dutch” Ruppersberger said in a telephone interview Thursday. Ruppersberger introduced a similar bill, HR 9319, to Congress in November that would allow states to reissue stolen food assistance with federal funds.
Currently, the federal government does not require states to replace stolen SNAP funds. And while federal law prohibits states from using federal funds to reimburse victims, states have been able to use their own money, but most do not.
“The way it works is the federal government will pay for all these people who have been victimized, but it has to go through the state,” Ruppersberger said. “So we have to involve all states in the process.”
He continued, “We have heard from families who had to give up Christmas gifts for their children because their purchase money was stolen.”
Tonya Alanez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.