Victims of benefit scams desperate for help as theft rises

Victims of benefit scams desperate for help as theft rises

BALTIMORE – Maryland families who were robbed of their federal welfare benefits are seeking help from the state.

Thieves use SNAP and cash assistance before cardholders have a chance to withdraw their money. When victims report this theft to the Maryland Department of Human Services, they are told that their benefits will not be replaced.

“Please help us, because these benefits are approved for us, and not even for us adults, but for children,” said Katherine Abanda-Sein.

Abanda-Sein’s story is similar to many others.

“I signed up with my provider [website] to see how much food stamps I had left and I saw that my cash benefit had been pulled,” Abanda-Sein said.

Her full amount for August, $790, was cashed by a criminal in Arbutus. WMAR-2 News has received reports of benefits being withdrawn as far away as Miami or Los Angeles.

“You know, it hurt me. I’m a single mother of four boys. Breastfeeding, TCA, that’s how I get by,” Abanda-Sein said.

She needs benefits to support her family, but the state refuses to replace them.

“It’s not like the families are left with nothing, we have a number of resources that are being offered to these families,” DHS Secretary Lourdes Padilla said at a recent legislative hearing.

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii sent a survey to 100 people who contacted her after losing benefits. She asked, “What assistance did DHS offer you after reporting the theft (rental assistance, utility payment assistance, food stamps, food pantry, etc.)?” So far, 57 people have answered the survey with the same answer that no help is offered.

“If I want help, I have to be almost evicted from my house,” Abanda-Sein said. “Don’t make us jump through multiple hoops to get help when our benefits are stolen, we didn’t do that. These crooks here did.”

This problem is getting worse. Maryland saw a huge spike in stolen benefits in August. Reported losses jumped to $178,430 compared to $57,129 in July.

In September, there was another significant increase. Nearly $200,000 was reported stolen in just one month, bringing this year’s total to $716,053, more than 7 times the reported losses for all of 2021.

DHS did not respond to Sofastai’s request for an interview with Secretary Padilla.

“We have families that are hurting and you can get them the benefits they’re entitled to that were taken away from them by fraud. Why don’t you do that?” Sen. Malcolm Augustine (D-Prince George’s County) asked at a Sept. 20 hearing.

“I truly believe this belongs to the police and they will prosecute these fraudsters,” Secretary Padilla responded.

But in an email to lawmakers after the hearing, DHS would not say whether there had been any prosecutions, only that “law enforcement agencies are unable to release specific details of their ongoing investigations.”

During the hearing, lawmakers were quick to point out that enforcement actions do not immediately help those whose benefits were stolen, such as Abanda-Sein, whose benefits were taken the same month as her four children’s birthdays.

“They were excited because my twins were actually turning 18 and I couldn’t do anything for them,” Abanda-Sein said. “It was difficult, especially trying to explain to a 10-year-old when we’re 11, when we have a birthday party and all I can afford is cake.”

DC and California are replacing these stolen federal aid benefits with local funds. Currently, Maryland is not.

Sofastaii has contacted the governor’s office about this matter. Mike Ricci, Gov. Hogan’s communications director, said the governor believes a number of actions should be taken:

  1. USDA should finally provide clear guidance to states on addressing SNAP theft.
  2. Congress should reconsider the carve-out in federal law that makes these benefits unprotected.
  3. The General Assembly should explore reimbursement policies at the state level to help these families.

“I leave the house in the middle of the night, right around 11:20, 11:30, to get to the bank before 11:59 so I can be at the ATM and I’m already entering my PIN to withdraw my money, but on the way there, I call to change pin,” Abanda-Sein said. “I’m afraid I won’t wake up one day, I forget, the alarm doesn’t go off or I don’t stay long enough and I go to the bank and my benefits will be taken.”

Conduent, a vendor that distributes federal benefits on behalf of the state, said it would not reimburse victims of the fraud.

It recently implemented enhanced security features that prevent cardholders from selecting weak pins and block certain phone numbers associated with unauthorized users.

In the future, it plans to provide a transaction block that would allow cardholders to lock their cards or decline out-of-state transactions and set up alerts about card usage, but Conduent did not specify when these features would be available.

If you are a victim of this crime, we encourage you to contact your local elected officials. You can find their information at by clicking here. Enter your address under the “search” tab and you’ll have the option to email all vetted legislators.


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