A lawsuit on behalf of New York State residents who were electronically robbed of funds they used for groceries seeks reimbursement to the victims by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, alleging that in doing so Failure is a violation of federal law.
The federal lawsuit against the USDA was filed Wednesday morning by the Legal Aid Society, a New York-based nonprofit legal services provider, and the law firm Freshfields Brookhaus Derringer. The class-action suit represents six plaintiffs and seeks to represent thousands of other New York state residents who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and whose benefits were also skimmed.
The complaint claims the limited scenarios under which USDA currently authorizes states to use federal funds to restore SNAP benefits are not consistent with Congressional mandates, which it says Stolen grocery funds must be replaced before they are received by the recipient. Skimming is not one of those scenarios.
This comes as reports of SNAP skimming have increased across the country. Theft is committed by using devices hidden on the keypad of the card reader to electronically steal account information, often without the victim or store owners knowing.
In New York State alone, there have been more than 10,600 incidents of SNAP skimming since January, robbing victims of benefits totaling more than $4.6 million, according to the most recent data from the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
Yet because the federal government does not currently cover the cost of replacement money, some states have reimbursed victims.
Some help came from the omnibus bill passed in December. It included a provision for the replacement of stolen SNAP funds with federal dollars that allows up to two months of skimmed benefits to be restored, but it only applies to victims skimmed from October 2022 through September 2024.
“It is unconscionable that low-income families already struggling to make ends meet are forced to bear the cost of skimmed food benefits.”
Alex McDougall, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society
Wednesday’s complaint argues those measures don’t go far enough and is seeking full restoration of the stolen SNAP benefits of every New York state resident by January 2022, regardless of the amount stolen.
“It’s unconscionable that low-income families are already struggling to make ends meet,” said Alex McDougall, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society., said in an interview. “It largely takes away the parents’ ability to feed their young.”
some protection, some support
Typically, thieves install skimming devices on card-swiping machines by the cash register. The devices are plastic keypad overlays that look almost identical to card reader terminals. (See picture of skimming overlay here.)
Ashley Burnside, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), said, “Many times people don’t realize they’ve been robbed until they walk up to the cash register with a cart full of groceries.” Be.” Not involved in the federal lawsuit. “After going through the ordeal of calling their SNAP agency to report a crime, it is devastating for people to realize they have no choice but to seek reimbursement.”
SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, are issued monthly to an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card. While skimming is not unique to EBT cards, security measures such as contactless payments and embedded microchips have combated it in the credit card industry. According to the USDA, no SNAP state agency uses cards with chips.
Prior to the switch to an electronic system, food stamps were issued in paper form, and the USDA would replace them if they were stolen in the mail before participants could receive them.
Current rules based on the 2010 policy limits the ability to replace electronic benefits using federal funds primarily in cases of “domestic disaster”—situations when food purchased with EBT funds is destroyed in a fire. , for example, or is destroyed only after the physical card is reported stolen from a participant.
Wednesday morning’s lawsuit alleges that because a 1996 mandate declared that stolen electronically transferred SNAP benefits must be replaced in the same way that stolen paper coupons were, it is illegal for USDA not to replace skimmed benefits. Is.
In a statement, the USDA said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.
The theft of benefits can be devastating to families who are already financially vulnerable. A mother who lives in New York public housing and asked not to be identified because she was discussing her personal finances said that since she was evicted several months ago for more than $2,000, she has spent more than $2,000 in rent. Have put the money away for food – and are now behind on paying rent.
She was shocked the day she came to know that she had been skimmed.
“I just broke down. I was crying. My kids were trying to pat me down, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, oh my god. All our money is gone,'” she said.
Tuesday’s complaint is believed to be the first federal lawsuit regarding SNAP skimming, according to attorneys. In November, a class-action lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts against the state agency that administers SNAP benefits on behalf of skimming victims in that state.
McDougall said the federal lawsuit seeks reinstatement of benefits for New York state skimming victims, but could have ramifications for the rest of the country.
“Any change to SNAP policy or regulation would obviously affect all SNAP recipients nationwide,” she said. “If we win the case, it will set a precedent for those in a similar situation.”
The lawsuit comes amid growing calls to strengthen SNAP EBT card protections to prevent others from being victimized in the future. Burnside said something as simple as a text alert sent to recipients when their card has been used out-of-state would be a helpful start.
“The card is susceptible to theft because it is not held up to market security and recipients are then left unprotected, but also left with no recourse once their funds are stolen,” she said. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking.”