MEMPHIS, Tenn. — WREG started noticing a trend recently: more calls coming in from Memphians claiming someone is stealing SNAP benefits.

So the WREG Investigators looked into it, and it turns out MPD received a “huge influx” of people filing reports about EBT fraud. Tiffany Jones was one of them.

“Hopefully, this will be over really soon,” Jones told us.

She’s a proud mother of eight, and while she and her husband both work, they have to rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Her SNAP benefits help feed her family, so they can pay the bills and other household expenses.

“I get a deposit every month on the 20th,” she said.

When June 20 rolled around, she called to check her balance. Her benefits had already been spent even though her EBT card was still in her wallet. Turns out, somehow someone nearly 600 miles away used it.

“West Road in Houston, Texas. The Sam’s Club. The whole $1,134,” she said.

Jones has never stepped foot in that city. Neither has Selisia Stout, who gets SNAP benefits for her 6-month-old baby to help out while she’s in school.

“I’m grocery shopping knowing my benefits are on my card, my EBT card,” Stout said. “I receive my benefits on the fifth. As soon as I swipe my card, they’re gone.”

Stout had to leave the store without the groceries she desperately needed. She said someone in Houston, Texas used her EBT card. She filed a police report and ordered a replacement card.

“Had to go through all that. They’re supposed to have a secure system for us. It’s just horrible,” Stout said.

Memphis Police said they’ve taken 150 to 200 reports in the last few weeks involving an EBT card being fraudulently used in another part of the country. That doesn’t include the people who haven’t filed a report yet, like Tabatha Johnson.

Johnson received benefits this summer to help cover meals for her five children. She didn’t get to use them, though. Someone in New York did. She had to use rent money to pay for food instead.

“When we got to the register, it said zero dollars and zero cents,” she said. “We had been struggling for a minute. My husband is trying to make it work for us. I just graduated from college. It is just a hard time.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture told WREG Investigators it is working with “state and federal partners as well as retailers, EBT processors, and other industry experts” to “combat SNAP fraud.”

It’s a problem that’s been happening nationwide.

“The last report I have is from May. There have been over 250,000 police reports filed across the country from food insecure individuals who have had their EBT cards stolen,” said Haywood Talcove, CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions’ Government Group. “The probability of getting caught is almost zero.”

His firm has been tracking SNAP fraud. Talcove said the criminals are from out of state and even out of the country and are installing skimmers onto card machines, using phishing scams or bots to steal personal identification numbers.

“The cards are being stolen, then they’re being aggregated, and then [the criminals] are going to the big box stores. They are buying Redbull. They are buying Monsters. They are buying baby formula and then they are selling it on the dark web,” he said.

He said sometimes they’ll sell the benefits at a discount. He said the government needs to quickly upgrade security like requiring a two-factor verification and adding security chips to the EBT Card.

“They have had plenty of time to make an upgrade,” he said.

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What has happened is that Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act in December. It allows state agencies to use federal funds to replace stolen SNAP benefits going back to last October. As of March, the federal government has been reviewing and approving state plans.

The Tennessee Department of Human Services, which manages SNAP in Tennessee, stated its plan was “approved,” and it’s “currently working to set up the claims process, with an anticipated launch in September.”

Some states have taken steps to prevent fraud, like blocking suspicious out-of-state transactions.

Tennessee said its bidding process for the next EBT vendor is open, and it will be pursuing enhanced features like chip or tap cards.

At last count, in May there were 170,000 SNAP recipients in Shelby County. A majority of them are families.

WREG requested how many benefits wound up in criminals’ hands, leaving people like Stout struggling.

She said her biggest concern is that “it’s going to keep happening.”

TDHS recommendations to prevent benefit theft:

  • Changing the EBT card’s Personal Identification number (PIN) regularly
  • Checking the EBT balance regularly
  • Checking the payment device used for EBT transactions for signs of tampering or card skimming devices
  • Never sharing account information
  • Being cautious of unplanned calls, emails, texts, or other suspicious communications that asks for personal information

How to report fraud

  • TDHS urges customers to call the EBT customer service line at 1-888-997-9444. This will deactivate the card and send a new card to the account holder.
  • TDHS also suggests filing a police report.
  • Additionally, it recommends reporting the incident to the Office of Inspector General fraud hotline at 1-800-241-2629. They say it helps with ongoing investigations.