NEW YORK (WABC) -- More than 18,000 claims have been filed with New York City in the last month for stolen food stamps and cash assistance electronic benefits, Eyewitness News has learned.
The money is being stolen off people's state-issued debit cards.
"It was there at midnight and then I checked this morning and it was gone," Tamara Simmons, of Brownsville, told Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne about her benefits, as Simmons waited recently outside a city Human Resources Administration office in downtown Brooklyn.
Lola Johnson, of Manhattanville, said scammers stole $200 from her debit card.
"They took everything!" she said.
The city believes the money is being stolen after people swipe their debit cards on machines with skimming devices. It's a scam happening across the country.
Lashaye Simmons, of Hunts Point, said she is missing $160 in benefits.
"Whoever took out my money in California only left me $18," she said.
Daniel Clennon, of East New York, said he also had money stolen.
"Once it loaded onto the card, it automatically just left the card," he said.
Arianna Ballierajh, of Richmond Hill, said she first noticed the fraudulent withdrawals in July.
"As soon as I get money, it's gone the same day," she said.
Ballierajh said she has not received a refund for her $500 in stolen benefits.
The city said it wasn't able until recently to refund people their money due to federal regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture, which regulates Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamp benefits.
The city said since August 21, it has given out more than $4.5 million in replacement benefits. Replacement SNAP benefits are funded with federal SNAP dollars, while replacement cash assistance benefits come from funds reserved in the New York State budget, the city said.
"Until recently, victims of electronic benefits theft had no way of recovering their stolen benefits, but, as a result of new federal and state laws, they can now recoup some or all of their stolen benefits simply by submitting a claim to HRA," the city's Department of Social Services said in a statement. "This is a major victory for victims of electronic benefits theft, and we look forward to helping more New Yorkers recover the benefits that are rightfully theirs."
If you believe you have been a victim, report the fraud immediately by visiting your ConnectEBT account. You can also call the EBT Customer Service hotline at 1-888-328-6399. People do not need to go to a SNAP or HRA office to obtain a replacement card. If people are in immediate need of a new card, they can go to their local Benefits Access Center and obtain a temporary 'vault' card that is valid for 90 days.
Once you report the fraud, you will be issued a replacement card within five to seven days with the money still left in your account.
In order to get a refund of the stolen funds, you must file a claim.
People may also request a paper form be mailed to them by calling the Department of Social Services OneNumber at 718-557-1399 or by visiting their local SNAP center. People can mail a completed claim form to Department of Social Services, P.O. Box 02-9121, Brooklyn GPO, Brooklyn, NY 11202.
If your funds were stolen between October 1, 2022 and August 21, 2023 for SNAP benefits and between January 1, 2022 and August 21, 2023, you have until October 31, 2023 to file a claim. Fraud that occurred before October 1, 2022 for SNAP and January 1, 2022 for cash assistance are not eligible for replacement money.
If your SNAP or cash assistance money was stolen after August 21, 2023, you have 30 days from the time you noticed the theft to file a claim. If you aren't aware of the exact date you became aware of the theft, city officials said to leave the portion of the claim blank. They said it will not cause your claim to be rejected.
Once your refund is approved, the stolen funds will be loaded onto your new EBT card.
People should allow up to 30 days after the city receives their claim to receive a decision on their claim. The replacement funds will be loaded onto their EBT card shortly afterwards.
City officials are warning people to be careful when using their new EBT card - to look for skimming devices - or they may have their money stolen again.
"Be aware at all times," Augusto Escalante, with the city's HRA, said.
Skimming devices can be found by tugging on a credit card terminal. If it is loose, it may indicate scammers have installed a skimming device.
People should also shield their hand when punching in their PIN numbers as skimming machines may have cameras on them. City officials also recommend people change their PIN numbers frequently.
Eyewitness News asked the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance - which administers the EBT cards - why it is not using chip technology for the cards, which is more secure. The office said it is working with the USDA to identify options to further enhance the security of EBT cards.
The USDA said in a statement to Eyewitness News, "The USDA is working with states to replace these stolen SNAP benefits and take additional to protect SNAP benefits."
The USDA said it would work with any state that wants to switch its food stamps debit cards from strip to chip technology.
In March, the USDA announced a partnership with five states to pilot mobile contactless payments in SNAP.
Program participants in Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Oklahoma have the option to use mobile payments methods - like tapping or scanning their personal phone - instead of their physical SNAP card.
"This technology has the potential to help protect families from having their SNAP benefits stolen because of card skimming," the USDA said.
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