Bonita Hughes knows how to stretch her food budget by bargain shopping and cooking from scratch.
"I have three strapping young boys who are growing up," she said as she struggled to chop fresh vegetables for dinner. "I have Multiple Sclerosis, MS. Some days are better than other days."
Hughes said she cannot work and relies on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to help feed her family.
This month, however, the money she worked so hard to save suddenly disappeared from her account.
"They went to Food Lion and spent $434. They went to a Sam's Club, and these are all on the East Coast. I don't travel," Hughes said. "They stole $4,233.76 to the T. That's money I use to feed my kids."
Contact Denver7 has learned that Hughes is one of many victims of a crime trend targeting people who receive food benefits.
"It takes a lot of resources for us just to keep up with the reported loss that we do have," said Karla Maraccini, division director for food and energy assistance at the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Maraccini said thieves have targeted Colorado Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at an alarming rate in the last year.
"Since Oct. 2021, we've seen roughly $177,000 in SNAP benefits alone that had been stolen through card skimming and cloning primarily," said Maraccini.
Thieves place skimming devices on card readers to steal information and then clone the cards to spend the money. Unlike debit and credit cards, the funds on EBT cards are not protected.
"Once these grocery funds are stolen out of accounts, families are out of luck and have lost their food budget," said Anya Rose with Hunger Free Colorado.
Rose said a statewide food resource hotline is helping connect affected families to local food pantries, but that is not enough.
"We need to see a federal policy change. We need to see an administrative change or a statutory change that allows for the restoration of these benefits and provides the protections that other types of cardholders benefit from," said Rose.
Hughes filed a police report and is now using the EBT app to freeze her card, block out-of-state purchases and frequently change her PIN number — steps she recommends everyone using these cards take.
"Every time I shop, I turn my card on, I change the pin number," she said. "It's a lot more complicated, but I can't lose that money again. It's not fair. We have to live, too. You know, we have to survive."
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