PUBLIC ASSISTANCE RECIPIENTS who have had their food benefits stolen filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to require the state to repay the lost aid money. 

The suit filed by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute against the Department of Transitional Assistance tries to help an estimated thousands of Massachusetts families who had food stamp benefits stolen by “skimming.” Skimming is a crime in which someone illegally attaches a device to an ATM or a store’s card-swiping machine, which steals data like a credit card or PIN number. 

“What should not happen is that somebody fills up their grocery cart at the supermarket, gets to the checkout line and discovers there are no benefits in the account and they can’t feed their family that month,” said Deborah Harris, a Massachusetts Law Reform Institute attorney who filed the suit. “That is not acceptable. Either the federal government or the states have to step up to the plate.” 

A spokesperson for the Department of Transitional Assistance did not respond to requests for comment.  

According to the lawsuit, which was filed in Suffolk Superior Court, since the spring of this year, Massachusetts and other states have seen a dramatic uptick in skimming of SNAP, or food stamp, benefits. SNAP, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, offers food assistance to low-income households, and the benefits are stored on an electronic benefits card that is similar to a credit card. 

The lawsuit was brought by Christina Santiago of Saugus and Natahlie Rahmsay of Boston, two SNAP recipients who had their benefits stolen, but the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute wants it to become a class action lawsuit representing all beneficiaries who had benefits stolen. 

The issue brings up federal and state jurisdictional issues. The US Department of Agriculture pays for SNAP benefits. But the USDA will not repay stolen benefits, even if the theft is not the household’s fault. Although states may choose to use state money to reimburse individuals for stolen benefits, the state Department of Transitional Assistance has said it will not repay benefits because it would not get federal reimbursement.  

This policy makes SNAP benefits an outlier. The Department of Transitional Assistance does repay benefits from its general assistance program for families that are stolen through skimming. Commercial credit card companies also generally repay stolen money. And when money is stolen from a debit card or other pre-paid card, federal law requires it be repaid. Congress excluded public benefit cards from the 1996 federal law applying to debit cards, but with the caveat that government was required to write regulations creating comparable rules. However, since the electronic benefits system was set up in 2010, replacing a paper-based system, no such regulations have been written. 

The lawsuit argues that the state Department of Transitional Assistance “has a duty under state law to correct the underissuance of SNAP benefits to households whose SNAP is stolen through no fault of the household.” It relies on a provision in the law saying the state must reimburse families when benefits are improperly denied, terminated, or underissued, arguing that if someone’s benefits are stolen, the amount the family actually got was “underissued.” The suit also notes that Massachusetts has not used chip technology to protect its EBT cards, even though that technology is standard in the card industry. 

Members of the state’s congressional delegation – US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and Reps. Jim McGovern, Richard Neal, Katherine Clark, and Stephen Lynch – wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on September 1 asking the USDA to instruct states to reimburse for stolen benefits, with the assurance that the USDA will pay for them. At the time, the members of Congress said at least $1 million had been stolen from more than 2,000 Massachusetts households. (That is a tiny fraction of the 630,000 Massachusetts residents who get food stamp benefits.) 

“USDA should immediately address the current crisis by directing states to promptly restore benefits that are stolen due to skimming and by confirming that the federal government will reimburse states for the replacement costs,” the members of Congress wrote. “Meanwhile, USDA must – as quickly as possible – develop and implement more secure systems for accessing critical nutrition benefits.” 

The USDA on October 31 issued a bulletin encouraging states to take strong preventative actions against fraud, like restricting the use of common PINs, adding an additional magnetic stripe to cards, investigating patterns of fraud, and requiring additional authentication when someone calls to check their balance. It also suggests giving households options that allow them to block out-of-state transactions or temporarily freeze their benefit cards. But the letter did not offer federal resources to reimburse theft victims. 

The lawsuit focuses on the impact the theft has on its victims. Santiago is a pharmacy technician at a long-term care facility who is getting her associate’s degree and raising two children. She relies on the $740 a month in SNAP benefits to buy food for her family. When she went food shopping in October the day after her monthly benefits were issued, she was told there was no money in her account. She called the DTA office and was told her benefits had been spent in Texas, and the state would issue her a new card but not refund the money. Someone a week earlier had spent smaller amounts in Arkansas, and Santiago said DTA never flagged those purchases or warned her that someone may be improperly accessing her account. 

Rahmsay is 71 and cares for her adult son with Down’s syndrome. The sole income for both of them is disability benefits. In July, she found that around $400 of her SNAP benefits were stolen from her account and used in Illinois. DTA did not repay the money, putting a strain on her finances.