The challenge of feeding her children has never been simple for Brittany Moats, a single mother of three from La Mesa.
Things got easier a couple of years ago, when Moats qualified for almost $750 a month in food stamps from the county Health and Human Services Agency. But when she bought a pizza last month, she noticed the balance on her account was close to zero.
“I hurried up and called the number on my card and was listening to all the transactions, but I didn’t do them,” she said. “I filed a dispute and eventually got refunded, but then it happened again this month.”
Moats is one of thousands of people in San Diego County who have seen their electronic benefit cards hacked since September.
The crime wave of nearly 5,000 hacks into EBT accounts — electronic benefit transfers — has left thousands of victims struggling to find food and others unable to pay rent or other bills.
County officials said they are aware of the problem and working with families to restore their benefits. They are also helping local, state and federal law enforcement agencies investigate.
“This is being conducted by a sophisticated crime ring,” said Michael Workman, the San Diego County spokesperson. “This crime activity is most frequent at the beginning of the month, after public-assistance benefits are loaded to the EBT cards.”
County health officials said they first began receiving reports of missing funds late last summer.
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Clients in the CalFresh and CalWorks programs administered by the Health and Human Services Agency began alerting caseworkers days after funds were electronically added to their debit cards.
CalFresh is the state‘s food stamp program, known nationally as SNAP, for supplemental nutrition assistance program. The CalWorks program provides cash relief and other services to families with children.
In most of the thefts, county workers responded by requesting a client disclosure attesting that specific charges were not incurred, then closing out the accounts and issuing new cards.
But that process can take days, and clients say they struggled to pay for groceries and other expenses during the time it took to process the reports and award new benefits.
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“We just have to borrow food from my mom,” Moats said. “If it goes on much longer, what are we going to do? How are we going to eat? We depend on this.”
County officials say the organized hacks are not limited to San Diego. Workman said public agencies up and down the state have reported similar thefts in recent months. Social workers are doing their best to speed up processing new EBT cards, he said.
“This issue has nothing at all to do with the recipients of the public-assistance benefits,” Workman said. “We have been regularly communicating with our customers about this issue.”
The San Diego FBI field office said the thefts are a “state matter” and referred law enforcement questions to the state social-services agency.
The California Department of Social Services, which distributes food stamps, said it has been working to control the thefts and also to improve the systems it relies on to deliver benefits.
“This past June, Card Verification Value functionality for all EBT cards was recently enabled, which added an additional layer of security to help mitigate EBT theft,” Social Services spokesperson Jason Montiel said in a statement.
The state agency also recently received a $740,000 grant to study ways to reduce fraud, and Gov. Gavin Newsom just included $50 million for EBT theft prevention in his new budget, Montiel said.
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According to state data, California counties reimbursed CalWorks beneficiaries almost $30 million between July 2021 and September 2022 — including $4 million last September alone.
Counties returned almost $5 million to food-stamp recipients over the same 15-month period, with over $2 million rebated in August and September of last year.
Montiel said the thefts amount to less than 1 percent of the $3.2 billion in CalWorks allotments and just 0.04 percent of $11.2 billion in food assistance over the 15 months.
Multiple criminal probes also are under way. “Once investigations have been completed, additional details will be available,” Montiel said.
Victims say when they report the hacks, the phone lines are often clogged with calls, and in-person reports at the county Family Resource Centers can take hours.
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Another food-stamp beneficiary, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing her benefits for speaking out, said her monthly allowance was drained within hours of being loaded onto her card.
“I went to go shopping, and my card got declined,” said the woman, who lives near Lemon Grove. “They spent the whole $281.”
At the Family Resource Center in El Cajon, where social workers process applications for food stamps and other public assistance, the victimized woman said she was told it would take days or longer to reinstate her benefits.
“I said, ‘How are you supposed to eat until then?’” she said. “They said I have to go to a food bank.”
Food stamps are awarded under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and are distributed in California by individual counties under the Department of Social Services.
Once qualified, beneficiaries are awarded a card that resembles a typical debit card, although they are not affiliated with banks or credit unions.
That’s an important distinction, because private financial institutions have improved security in their electronic-payment systems by adding microchips to millions of credit and debit cards across the nation and world.
Shelly Dieu of the San Diego Hunger Coalition said her organization has seen a notable increase in fraud claims in recent months.
She said the nonprofit coalition urges clients to track their balances and check their online accounts as often as possible, because resolving the problem and reclaiming the benefits can be difficult and time-consuming.
“It’s difficult to know when benefits are stolen because not everyone goes to the grocery store all the time, and not everyone is checking so intently,” Dieu said.
Once robbed, “the processing time can take 10 days,” the Hunger Coalition program manager said. “Right now the county has been quite inundated, so it’s taking a little longer than that.”
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Advocacy groups like the Western Center on Law and Poverty are pressing policymakers to upgrade EBT cards.
“Updating the card technology is critical to protecting recipients who we know are going hungry and need assistance in meeting their basic needs,” said Christopher Sanchez, a policy director at the center.
“There absolutely needs to be a minimum standard that ensures these protections while ensuring that clients are able to use these benefits without interruption,” he said.
San Diego County has struggled for years to provide food-stamp benefits to eligible residents.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in 2006 that the region enrolled barely 25 percent of people who qualify for the help — at the time the lowest enrollment of any large city in America.
Under pressure from social service providers and others, the Board of Supervisors directed public health officials to do a better job promoting the program and relax some of the local policies that had contributed to the low enrollment.
The marketing and application changes have boosted the number of people in San Diego now receiving CalFresh benefits.
According to the state Department of Social Services, some 388,000 people in San Diego County were receiving monthly benefits as of November — almost one in every eight residents.
Out of almost 18,000 applications received that month, however, just over 10,000 were approved.
The crime wave of nearly 5,000 hacks into EBT accounts — electronic benefit transfers — has left thousands of victims struggling to find food and others unable to pay rent or other bills. County officials said they are aware of the problem and working with families to restore their benefits.What is the penalty for CalFresh fraud? ›
PENALTIES FOR CALFRESH FRAUD: If on purpose you do not follow CalFresh rules, your CalFresh benefits can be stopped for 12 months for the first violation, 24 months for the second, and forever for the third. You may be fined up to $250,000 and/or sent to jail/prison for 20 years.What is the penalty for Calworks fraud? ›
Most misdemeanor welfare fraud offenses are punishable by fines up to $1000 and up to one year in jail; Most felony offenses carry fines of up to $5000 and are either 16 months, two years, or three years in a California state prison.What if my EBT benefits are stolen in California? ›
If you think your benefits may have been stolen, you should immediately call the customer service telephone number on the back of your EBT card, (877) 328-9677, or contact your county social services agency. Never give out your personal information to anyone, or you could have your benefits stolen.What are the consequences for welfare fraud in California? ›
What are the Penalties for Welfare Fraud in California? Anyone who is convicted of making a false or a misleading statement to obtain welfare benefits can be charged in California with a misdemeanor. A conviction is punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $500.Can you get in trouble for lying on a CalFresh application? ›
You will be disqualified from the CalFresh Program for a specified period of time even if you do not admit to the facts presented by the County. (See Disqualification Penalties). You will be disqualified from the CalFresh Program for a specified period of time even if a court does not find you guilty of fraud.Can you go to jail for food stamp overpayment in California? ›
Food Stamp Fraud
Again, if the total value of the benefits received was $950 or less, it's a misdemeanor offense carrying a jail sentence of up to six months and a fine up to $1,000. If the value of welfare benefits was more than $950, it's a felony crime that carries up to three years in jail and a fine up to $5,000.
There are many reasons the county might say your CalWORKs benefits will stop. Some of these reasons are that your income is too high, you have too much property, you don't have custody of your children or you did not turn in paperwork to the county.How much money is lost to welfare fraud in the US? ›
Improper welfare payments, including welfare fraud and welfare abuse, are estimated to be 15.2% of all federal welfare payments. They total $161 billion in the fiscal year 2021.What disqualifies you from CalWORKs? ›
Be a U.S. citizen or meet residency requirements. Live in California. Not be a fleeing felon or a convicted drug felon.
CalFresh is not the same as CalWORKs or welfare. You will not have to pay any money back unless you are overpaid. You do not need to report CalFresh on your tax return. You can get CalFresh even if you get money from a job, disability, unemployment, Social Security, CalWORKs, General Assistance or retirement.How long does food stamp investigation take in California? ›
In our experience, a food stamp investigation can take from one month to a couple of years. The most important thing to do is to hire an attorney so that you will not crack under pressure and will not provide incriminating information to the investigator.How does CalFresh verify income? ›
The CalFresh office commonly checks information from government and state agencies as well. Some notable federal agencies include the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).Does CalFresh make you pay them back? ›
The CalFresh office can ask a household to voluntarily pay back any overissuances.