Tucked inside the $1.7 trillion spending bill President Biden signed Friday is a provision that would reimburse victims of food-stamp theft, a welcome relief to recipients and advocates in Massachusetts who have been fighting for this issue amid a nationwide surge in stolen benefits that have left low-income households on the hook when their monthly funds get skimmed.
The bill includes $153 billion for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits program, or SNAP, and would require states to replace stolen food-stamp funds to low-income households whose benefits were stolen between Oct. 1, 2022 and Sept. 30, 2024. The provision will also provide federal assistance for states to better track fraud and improve outdated technology.
The new legislation comes as a class-action lawsuit was filed in Suffolk Superior Court on behalf of thousands of Massachusetts families who have had their SNAP benefits stolen from their accounts and are seeking reimbursement.
“We are really pleased that Congress is stepping up to provide some relief to families who have been harmed by skimming related theft,” said Betsy Gwin, senior attorney at the nonprofit Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “We think this is a really positive step.”
The positive effects would be limited though, Gwin said. More than 5,000 households in Massachusetts reported $1.6 million in SNAP benefits stolen from June 2022 to November 2022, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, the agency named in the lawsuit that oversees the SNAP program in the state.
The reimbursement funds would only cover a fraction of victimized households, Gwin said.
“It will not cover the losses experienced by every household in Massachusetts,” Gwin said. “Many of the individuals and families that we have spoken to over the last number of months had their benefits stolen prior to October 2022, and they will not be covered by this federal provision.”
The electronic thefts have risen so much in recent months that the US Agriculture Department, which funds the program, issued a warning about SNAP skimming in late October. Scammers “skim” EBT cards through a hard-to-detect device inserted into a card reader, which allows them to clone the card, stealing the card number and PIN.
Natahlie Rahmsay, 71, a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit who lives with her disabled 34-year-old son in Boston, would not see any 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 found out her account didn’t have enough funds to cover it. She later learned that someone spent $399.84 from her account on July 2 at a Sam’s Club in Cicero, Ill.
Rahmsay does not have a Sam’s Club membership, nor has she ever been to Cicero, Ill.
“Losing nearly $400 in SNAP in July put a strain on Ms. Rahmsay’s finances,” the lawsuit said.
Rahmsay has struggled to regain her financial footing since, putting off paying for some things and using her and her son’s limited disability incomes to buy food, the lawsuit said.
EBT cards are not included in federal protections that largely shield credit and debit card holders in the event of fraud.
“It’s a despicable crime that really targets the most vulnerable among us,” Maryland US Representative Charles Albert “Dutch” Ruppersberger said in a telephone interview on Thursday. Ruppersberger introduced a similar bill, HR 9319, to Congress in November that would enable states to reissue stolen food assistance with federal funds.
Currently, the federal government does not require states to replace stolen SNAP funds. And though federal law prohibits states from using federal funds to reimburse victims, states have been able to use their own money — but most do not.
“How it works is that the federal government will pay for all these people who’ve been victimized, but it has to go through the state,” Ruppersberger said. “So we have to get all the states involved in the process.”
He continued, “We’ve heard from families that had to forego Christmas presents for their children because their grocery money was stolen.”