Illinois Link card hacked, women say, leaving them unable to use grocery benefits

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Two Chicago area women said they were unable to buy groceries after fraudsters drained their Illinois Link cards.

The state issues Link cards to help people with low incomes purchase food, the state's version of food stamps. Both women said they tried buying food with their card, but said they couldn't because a hacker beat them to the punch. The most frustrating part, they said, is that the state refuses to issue a refund.

Tatera Hooks said on Jan. 4, 2022 she was in the hospital battling COVID-19. She beat the virus and returned home to Bronzeville, but when she tried to order groceries she noticed something bizarre.

"When I checked my Link card balance it had only $4.96 on there," she explained. "I looked on the provider app and I was able to see that there were a total of six transactions that were made on my card, and this all happened in California. I'm like, I wasn't even in California."

A total of $1,500 in purchases were made out of state, on the same day Hooks said she was in the hospital.

"I cannot be in two places at once. I cannot be in Chicago and California at the same time while I was battling COVID," Hooks said. "Plus, the card was in my possession while I was in the hospital."

She said she doesn't know anyone in California, and hasn't shared her card information with anyone.

"I feel like it's hacking. They scammed my card. If somebody can scam a debit card or a credit card, they can scam a Link card," she said.

Roymona Owens of McHenry is a mother of three and relies on her Link card to feed her family. She said her account was drained down to just $0.49; the thief stole nearly $1,200 in benefits from her card.

The charges were made at several grocery stores in Los Angeles, but Ownes said she's never visited L.A.

"Nor do I have relatives in California," she said. "I felt hurt. I felt drained. My heart was hurting. I cried. I cried for days. I had to like, see how I would feed my kids. And I actually had my card on me at the time that they were using my card number."

The two women have the same question: How could something like this happen?

The Illinois Department of Human Services said in a statement, "IDHS is deeply concerned about any Illinois resident who is subject to potential benefits fraud. The privacy and security of Link cardholder information is critically important and we strongly urge all Link card holders to keep their card and pin numbers private. With more than 2 million Link cardholders, we receive very few reports of fraud annually."

IDHS also told the I-Team it will continue to maintain strong measures to prevent fraud, but as for reimbursements, the department said federal guidelines won't allow it, even in cases of alleged fraud.

Both Hooks and Owens find this rule disturbing and unacceptable.

"I understand that there needs to be a proper investigation, but people need their stamps and their benefits to survive," said Hooks.

"I hope that I can get my funds back on my card because this was fraud and I want to put a stop to it," Owens explained.

IDHS said it's working with its card vendor and local law enforcement to investigate the transactions in California, but the agency maintains that federal guidelines will not allow them to reimburse funds.

Both ladies feel they're being ignored.

For more information on Illinois Link Cards, click here.
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