After wrapping up her volunteer shift at a food pantry last spring, Carolina Torres stopped by the store to buy tortillas, chorizo, eggs and avocados to make dinner for her family.
When a cashier tried to ring up the groceries with Torres’ Link card, which Torres thought had more than $3,000 in federally-funded SNAP benefits to buy food, the purchase wouldn’t go through. There was just 12 cents on the card.
“I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’ ” said Torres, 38, hearing a line of customers snicker behind her. “I was mad. I was confused. After I turned around and I saw the line, I was embarrassed.”
She wasn’t working at the time and said she had been saving her food benefits to make sure she could keep feeding her family, which includes three children, in case her husband lost his part-time job.
Torres discovered that someone allegedly spent more than $3,000 of her food benefits at a small corner store she says she’s never been to about four miles from her home in South Lawndale on the West Side.
SNAP, short for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and formerly known as food stamps, is a federal program that aims to help low-income families buy food. In Illinois, roughly 2 million residents, or 1 in 6, received SNAP benefits in the 2022 fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. More than two-thirds of recipients were in families with children. They receive a monthly amount of money based on need. This year, each Illinois household member is estimated to receive on average just shy of $200 a month.
Torres is part of a wave of low-income people who have gotten caught up in a nationwide skimming spree of SNAP benefits that started to spike last year. The federal government is reimbursing people whose benefits were stolen since October. Some states are filling in the gap further, by refunding victims whose benefits were stolen from January to September 2022.
But in Illinois, advocates that include Legal Council for Health Justice and the Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago say Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration has not agreed to replace stolen funds. And now SNAP recipients are also losing a bump in benefits they received during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Just like I expect to not be charged for the things that the person who skimmed my credit card at the gas station has put on my credit card, it’s equally important, or probably more important, for low-income folks to be able to be made whole for the benefits that they lost,” said Carrie Chapman, senior director of policy and advocacy at Legal Council for Health Justice.
Law proposed in Springfield to address skimming
This tension has fueled a proposed law that would require the Illinois Department of Human Services, or DHS, which administers SNAP benefits around the state, to not only replace stolen benefits with state dollars from January to September 2022, but also to track skimming going forward.
State Rep. Sonya Harper, D-Chicago, a former SNAP recipient, led the proposal’s passage in the House — which included the reimbursement portion. She and legal advocates say the state claims it would cost at least $20 million, but they’re not clear what those estimates are based on.
“They refuse to budge,” Harper said of leaders at DHS who don’t want to include the reimbursement portion.
But her proposal was recently gutted.
State Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, introduced an amendment that would strip the reimbursement portion from the bill. There’s a public hearing slated for this week.
Hunter’s amendment came just one day after telling WBEZ, “What is the sense in doing (the bill) if you take the reimbursement portion out?”
DHS staff recently said they needed more time to understand the scope of the alleged skimming, Hunter said.
DHS declined an interview request. In a statement, a spokeswoman said the department is neutral on the proposed bill, tracks skimming that’s reported, and set up a unit in December to monitor SNAP fraud.
Advocates are pushing for $5 million in the Illinois state budget to reimburse stolen SNAP benefits. They point to California, which in the 2022 fiscal year had more than twice as many SNAP recipients than Illinois with around 4.6 million, and spent just under $5 million reimbursing people whose food benefits were stolen electronically from January to September 2022, according to data provided by the California Department of Social Services.
The replenishment made up less than 1% of all food benefits paid out during that time period.
Scope of the problem not fully known
Thieves started widely skimming SNAP benefits last year. They attach devices to card readers that strip information or use small cameras to capture PIN numbers, then essentially create duplicate debit or credit cards.
It’s not clear just how many people have been impacted or how much money has been stolen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds SNAP benefits, is not comprehensively tracking it. Ed Bolen, director of SNAP state strategies at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said SNAP fraud is rare, but that the benefits aren’t as secure as typical credit or debit cards.
“It’s unprecedented in a lot of ways that so much fraud is happening,” Bolen said.
In Illinois, Legal Aid Chicago is representing more than 30 clients whose benefits have been allegedly stolen, including Torres. Based on experience, “we only see the tip of the iceberg,” said Trey Daly, director of the public benefits practice group, adding that many skimming victims may not know to reach out to his group for help.
Daly and a group of attorneys have used the state’s own data to scrutinize when and where unauthorized purchases were made. Of Legal Aid Chicago’s more than 30 clients, they’ve had on average around $800 allegedly stolen from their cards. Around one-third had more than $1,000 in benefits allegedly stolen. The most common ZIP code where alleged victims live is on the South Side in an area that includes Woodlawn, while in more than a dozen cases, their benefits were used in California, including at Walmart and Costco.
“One of the most disappointing things about this is we’ve been in contact with many law enforcement departments — the City of Chicago, Skokie, some others — and they’ve given up, it appears,” Daly said. “The feedback that we’ve gotten is that this is a federal issue. This is a federal benefit. … And despite our requests for information, the (Illinois) Department of Human Services has disclosed no investigation efforts that we’re aware of. So, it’s upsetting that nobody’s trying to figure out apparently what went wrong, or who are the bad actors.”
Torres said she didn’t know her benefits were stolen until after she tried to buy groceries at the store. As she walked home, she checked an app that shows transactions made on her card.
“By the time I got to the house, I could see it was gone,” Torres said. Someone had used her more than $3,000 in SNAP benefits at the corner store while she says she was volunteering at the food pantry that morning last May.
She called the state to report what happened and get more details. They followed up with a letter saying they would not restore her benefits because her PIN number was used, and she didn’t report her card lost or stolen until after the purchases were made, according to a copy Torres shared with WBEZ. She filed a police report, too.
For Torres, multiple transactions totaling hundreds of dollars each happened at the small corner store a minute apart.
Legal Aid Chicago traced three other clients’ allegedly stolen benefits used at the store.
Allyn Gibson, 72, who lives on the South Side in Englewood, is another Legal Aid Chicago client. Last year, his refrigerator broke for a few months, so he hadn’t been spending as much of his SNAP benefits. He accumulated around $700.
He discovered the theft like Torres did — while trying to buy groceries, with just around $2 on his card. Someone had used his benefits along with his PIN number in California.
“I couldn’t believe it. I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute. How?’ ” Gibson recalled. “I just puzzledly walked away. There was nothing else I could do.”
After the alleged theft, Gibson said he wasn’t able to buy as much food, and called around to see if anyone needed small jobs done — cleaning out a basement or unclogging a toilet — to make extra money.
Daly said some clients had to borrow money or put off paying other bills to buy food instead, turned to food pantries or ate less until their next allotment of benefits came.
Weary after a crush of people lost their jobs or got sick during the height of the pandemic, Torres is still using her SNAP benefits sparingly and saving money to make sure she can put food on the table.
And now she’s cautious whenever she goes to the store, worried another alleged theft could take place.
She said she hopes the state makes her whole.
“I want my money back because I didn’t do this. This is a crime that was done against me,” Torres said. “Why should I be paying for something I didn’t do?”
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government for WBEZ.