CHICAGO (WLS) -- Since the I-Team uncovered issues with Illinois food stamp fraud and Link card draining in 2022, they have received nearly a dozen people who said the same thing happened to them.
Laura Downs said she was left with only 52 cents to her name last year after a fraudster drained her Link card.
"It was devastating to me and it was Christmas time," she said. "I had to go to food pantries to make it."
When she checked her account, there was a $195 transaction made at 1:31 a.m.
"By somebody in New York by a strange market I'd never been to before," Downs sad. She doesn't know anyone in New York.
Downs said she had her physical Link card with her and never shares her PIN. She went to the Illinois Department of Human Services to report the fraud.
"They gave me a new card with a new PIN, but they told me, 'Girl, you ain't going to get your money back,'" said Downs.
Even more people have contacted the I-Team with claims that someone, somehow, took the funds from their Link cards, which helps families in need pay for food through the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Haywood Talcove, CEO of the government branch of the data analytics company LexisNexis Risk Solutions, said his firm has been tracking SNAP fraud for the last two years. He said this year alone there have been nearly 250,000 police reports nationwide involving SNAP benefit fraud.
"We pay very close attention to the dark web," he said. "The same groups that were pilfering money from unemployed insurance are now pilfering money from the SNAP program."
He said criminals are installing skimmers onto card machines, which allows them to steal card information. Talcove said thieves are also stealing funds through phishing attacks, when scammers trick users into clicking links that allow thieves to tap into people's SNAP accounts.
He said until the government requires merchants to have more sophisticated machines, adds chips to SNAP cards, and puts in place a two-factor verification system, he believes this type of fraud could be catastrophic.
"This is going to escalate into a $20 billion program over the next six months," Talcove said.
The Illinois Department of Human Services said it recently launched a SNAP fraud unit to track reports of card skimming.
The USDA, which oversees the federal SNAP program, said it is pursuing multiple approaches to fraud protection, including educating states and grocery stores about how skimming works.
They said some states are exploring adding chips to the SNAP cards.
Meanwhile, Downs said her food benefits still haven't been returned by the state.
"I said they messed with the wrong girl, because I'm going to advocate," she said.
To protect yourself, LexisNexis said you should change your PIN every time you use your card. While they acknowledge it's tedious, they say it's necessary until a real solution is implemented.
As for reimbursement, Congress passed a law in 2022 requiring the USDA to replace SNAP benefits to people whose funds were stolen. The law only allows victims two reimbursements per year, but the rollout of the process is taking some time.
The USDA said if someone thinks they are the victim of card skimming, they should contact their local SNAP office. USDA encourages SNAP participants to take actions that may help prevent card skimming such as avoiding simple PINs, beware of phishing, and checking their EBT account regularly for unauthorized charges. For more information, click here
Statement from the Illinois Department of Human Services
At IDHS, our mission is to enhance the health and well-being of all whom we serve, by providing health and human services and by fostering medicine, public health, and social services to those in need. We serve more than 2 million SNAP customers annually and understand how critical these benefits are to vulnerable populations, including families with children trying to use their cards for groceries, or elderly and their caregivers who try to get medical care items. IDHS established a SNAP fraud unit to monitor fraud reports in Dec. 2022. We track all skimming reported. We encourage customers to keep their pin numbers confidential and sign up for alerts when the card is used for tracking purposes. IDHS deeply cares for persons facing food insecurity. We work closely with food pantries across the State to provide resources for those in need.
Additionally, IDHS is neutral on HB 2214. The legislation will allow the agency to have up-to-date information related to the scale and impact of SNAP fraud in Illinois.
SNAP is a federal program. IDHS follows all security requirements for EBT Cards as outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. IDHS is always considering best approaches to handling LINK card security. The decision to add a chip to an EBT/LINK card involves many factors such as cost-benefit analysis, State and Federal regulations, EBT contractor technologies, and retailer adoption.