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Lawsuit: Modernize state CalWORKS debit payment, reimbursement system

December 9, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Electronic thieves are targeting welfare recipients. Now a local woman victimized by debit-card skimming is suing the state to get the money back.

It's a case that's raising new questions about the state's use of the Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards, to distribute public assistance money. Critics say more and more welfare recipients are being targeted by thieves.

Some welfare families say they are sometimes left in the lurch when thieves steal their benefits electronically. A new lawsuit says that the state must get with the times.

In a state that gave birth to technology, there are still many instances where California government is behind the times.

Take the welfare program, known in California as CalWORKS. Recipients get their benefits electronically transferred into an EBT card that's used like a debit card to make purchases and withdraw cash. And like a debit card, the account number can be stolen.

It happened to CalWORKS recipient Evelyn Carpio from Van Nuys: $720 gone.

"I couldn't believe it. I was in shock because I knew it wasn't me who had taken the money out," said Carpio.

Turns out Carpio's EBT card was "skimmed." Thieves captured her information through an add-on a device at a store or ATM and withdrew the money.

To make matters worse, the California Department of Social Services doesn't recognize electronic theft like banks do.

If Carpio's card had been physically taken or had it been a paper check, she'd get her money back in days. Reimbursement in this case took two years.

"Nobody was really taking responsibility to who was going to put the money back into the EBT," said Carpio.

Two non-profit agencies have filed a lawsuit against the state, mandating that it update its practices, especially since disability and unemployment benefits are also delivered electronically.

"None of these benefit programs have those protections that federal banking laws provide," said Vanessa Lee, supervising attorney, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. "They really need to pay more attention to this and move into the 21st century," said Lee.

In a statement, the state says it has yet to be served the legal documents. "At this time, it would be premature to discuss any of the issues surrounding this action," wrote Michael Weston, Dept. of Social Services.

Many welfare families don't have the luxury of waiting for reimbursement, if it happens at all.

"This shouldn't happen to families. We depend on this money. I depended on it," said Carpio.

Because the state doesn't recognize electronic theft, the state doesn't know how bad the problem is. But lawyers in this case suspect EBT theft occurs at the same rate as credit- or debit-card theft.

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