Recourse slow for victims of welfare EBT theft

December 9, 2011 7:46:18 PM PST
If someone manages to get ahold of your debit card and steals money, you have recourse with your bank, but the same isn't true for welfare benefits.

Welfare benefits are now issued electronically, but the state won't reimburse for identity theft. In a state that gave birth to technology, there are still many instances where California's government is behind the times.

Take the welfare program, known in California as CalWorks, for example: Recipients receive their benefits electronically transferred into an EBT card that's used like a debit card to make purchases and withdraw cash, and like a debit card, the account number can be stolen.

That happened to Evelyn Carpio from Van Nuys, who saw $720 vanish.

"I couldn't believe it," said Carpio. "I was in shock, because I knew it wasn't me who had taken the money out."

It turns out Carpio's EBT card was skimmed: Thieves captured her information through an added-on device at a store or ATM and withdrew the money.

To make matters worse, the California Department of Social Services doesn't recognize electronic theft like banks do. If her card had been physically taken, or if it had been a paper check, Carpio would have gotten her money back in days.

Reimbursement, in this case, took two years.

"Nobody was really taking responsibility as to who was gonna put the money back into the EBT," said Carpio.

Two non-profit agencies have filed a lawsuit against the state, mandating that it update its practices especially since disability and unemployment benefits are also delivered electronically.

"None of those benefit programs have those protections that federal banking laws provide," said Vanessa Lee with the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. "They really need to pay more attention to this and move into the 21st Century."

The state says it has yet to be served the legal documents.

"At this time, it would be premature to discuss any of the issues surrounding the action," a statement issued by Michael Weston of the Dept. of Social Services read.

Many welfare families don't have the luxury of waiting for reimbursement -- if it happens at all.

"This shouldn't happen to families," said Caprio. "We depend on this money. I depended on it."

Since it doesn't recognize electronic theft, the state doesn't know how bad the problem is. Lawyers in this case suspect EBT theft occurs at the same rate as debit and credit card theft.


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