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Food, cash assistance stolen at the 'absolute worst time of year'

SNAP sign at grocery store.
Jonathan Weiss
Theft of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits has been reported across the state right before the holiday season.

Thefts of food benefits and cash assistance for the needy have been reported across the state and while local agencies are sympathetic and working to help, victims won’t be reimbursed before the holiday.

There have been more than a dozen reports of fraud in Cuyahoga County since last week, Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services Administrator Kevin Gowan said.

“We’re talking about, between the 14 cases, about $5,200 that’s missing," Gowan said.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefits are being stolen through a process called skimming, where a device is placed over a card reader that steals information from payment cards. The skimmer looks like a real card reader. When the card is swiped, the skimmer steals information such as the cardholder's full name, card number, expiration date and security code. The data is then transferred to a cloned card. People may not even be aware their benefits have been stolen.

"This is new. This is new this year," Gowan said. "We were notified by the state that it was happening, and it's happening nationwide."

SNAP recipients should check their accounts and change their personal identification numbers (PINs), Gowan said. Recipients should also examine card readers to see if a skimmer has been placed over it. Authorities say if a skimmer is on the card reader, it may stick out and be unstable.

Because the benefits come from the federal government, they’re not being reimbursed.

"Legislation has been introduced to correct that," Gowan said, "but as of now, they're not reimbursing."

Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services is working with community organizations to make sure no one goes without food over the holiday, Gowan said.

“We are working on efforts to try and make them whole and replace some of the benefits at the county level, and we’ve only just learned of this," Gowan said. "So we’re trying to get together with some community partners to make them whole.”

Cases of fraud have also been reported in Stark and Tuscarawas Counties.

"This is the absolute worst time of year and the worst population to do this to," Gowan said. "We're talking about people who are below the poverty line, and right before the holidays, they're losing their benefits."

In a statement, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services said it is working with investigators on fraud cases involving SNAP benefits and cash assistance through the Ohio Works First program.

If you believe your benefits have been stolen, officials say you should notify your local Health and Human Services department of investigations and file a theft report with your local law enforcement agency. You should also change your PIN and request a new card. The number to request a new SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card is 866-386-3071. The number to request a new cash card is 866-320-8822.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.