DENVER — Congress is taking action to refund food benefits for Coloradans whose Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards were targeted by thieves. Hunger Free Colorado calls it a short-term fix for a long-term problem.
To feed her family, Jamie O'Reilly, a Westminster resident, counts on monthly food benefits.
"I'm a full-time student. I work at my school. I do all the right things. And then I'm just trying to take care of my two kids," she said.
Last summer, O'Reilly discovered that thieves had drained her entire Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) account and her food budget for the month.
"I had to spend a lot of time going to food banks and kind of going through all that, which is an exhausting process," she said.
State officials have reported thieves are using skimming devices to clone EBT cards. Unlike credit or debit cards, there are no consumer protections in place for EBT cards.
In 2022, 243 Colorado families were targeted, resulting in more than $215,000 in stolen SNAP funds.
"These are only the ones that we know of. It is possible that other people have had their benefits stolen from them through card skimming and cloning and just not reported it to us or only reported to law enforcement," said Karla Maraccini, director of the food and energy assistance division at the Colorado Department of Human Services. "So the problem could be more pervasive than the data that I'm telling you right now."
While covering the issue last year, Contact Denver7 learned it would take an act of Congress to address the problem — which actually happened. The omnibus funding bill passed last month includes a measure to refund some of the stolen SNAP benefits.
Rep. Jason Crow, D-CO, co-sponsored similar legislation after his office learned there was little recourse for Colorado's most vulnerable.
"It's going to make a big difference. There's a lot of Coloradans who are going without now that will actually be able to get the benefits that they and their children need so that they can have full stomachs when they go to bed at night," said Crow.
However, Carmen Mooradian with Hunger Free Colorado said the legislation is only a starting point, offering limited consumer protections that end in 2024.
"Right now, there is a short-term fix that was included in the omnibus, but we do not yet have a long-term solution to this issue. And that is what we are looking for, for these households to feel protected and safe. I want to stress that this is happening to SNAP participants through no fault of their own," said Mooradian.
As far as preventing theft and protecting beneficiaries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the Department of Health and Human Services stated the agencies are "taking additional actions."
In a statement to Contact Denver7, a USDA spokeswoman said, "We continue to explore card security options in discussions with EBT processors that are used commercially and can be adopted for federal benefit programs. We are also exploring how to coordinate sharing scam alerts among partners in order to reinforce strategies already used by states."
Meanwhile, it could take months for refunds to arrive.
The state is working on how to implement the new federal law, which includes refunds for up to two months of stolen benefits, said Maraccini.
"We don't yet have guidance from the USDA on what the criteria, what the thresholds, what the kind of the delivery of reimbursing will look like," said Maraccini. "And then we will have 60 days to develop a plan to submit to the USDA. They will have to review that plan, and then provide us with authority or approve that plan or ask us to make changes in order to meet their criteria, if that's the case. So it won't be until Colorado has an approved plan with the USDA in place that will be able to begin reimbursing benefits."
Also, the refunds will only go back to October 2022, excluding O'Reilly and her family from reimbursement. Still, she said she is thankful.
"Knowing that you can get help now and not have to jump through all these hoops and make these phone calls and emails and just still get nowhere. I'm really happy that families in the future will be protected," said O'Reilly.
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