By Miriam Raftery
April 13, 2023 (El Cajon) – Robert Gehr, a senior citizen in El Cajon, was shocked to discover when he went shopping for groceries at Food 4 Less in El Cajon that $1,118 in CalFresh benefits had been stolen off of his Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. Since he had only used the card at that store, Gehr and police believe he was a victim of a skimmer device attached by a thief to the store’s card reader.
The County has only reimbursed$120 for the most recent month’s benefits—and Gehr may never see the rest of his stolen benefits returned—benefits that he’d been saving up for months Such scams are alarmingly prevelant -- and hit hard on vulnerable recipients, including low-income individuals, seniors on fixed incomes, and disabled people.
Bianca Sosa-Graciano, program specialist at Self-Sufficiency Services with the County’s Health & Human Services Agency, told ECM that scammers ripping off benefits on EBT cards is a “nationwide issue at this time.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic emergency declaration, EBT monthly benefits were dramatically increased to help people in need. But that emergency declaration ended March 31. “If that’s stolen, we can only reimburse up to the base allotment, not the emergency allotment,” she said. Moreover, only the most recent month’s benefit, a paltry $120 is now reimbursable, according to Sosa-Graciano.
She provided a copy of the state policy cited: Public Records manual of policies and procedures, section 63-60323.
Gehr has exercised his right to appeal the denial to a judge, and that decision remains pending.
He also voiced frustration that initially, El Cajon Police Department (ECPD) refused to take a police report on the theft, even though the stolen benefit had been cashed in at the Istanbul Market in Arizona. When he spoke with the County, he was asked for a police report, which he could not provide.
ECM called ECPD and was told at first that the department no longer investigated EBT card thefts, but instead referred such matters to the County.
That’s drastically different than La Mesa Police, where earlier this year, Lt. Katy Lynch told ECM that LMPD actively investigates skimmer thefts, educates merchants on how to check devices daily, reviews surveillance videos, and even takes DNA samples to catch thieves.
Later, however, ECM spoke with Sgt.Kevin Reilly at ECPD, who spoke with Gehr and the county investigator. On March 29, Sgt. Reilly told ECM in an email, “We also reviewed the case where the skimmer was was recovered from Food 4 Less, that was likely how his information was compromised. Unfortunately, there was a 2-week time frame where it could have been placed and therefore the business was unable to get video surveillance of it and the person responsible for it.”
While it may be too late to help Gehr, ECPD is now taking action to try and catch future skimmer scammers.
“As a smaller agency, we have working agreements with the Economic Crime Task Force (Secret Service) and the San Diego FBI for analyzing card skimmers and they will usually keep the case if the information contained on the skimmer leads to suspect identification,” he said.
ECM asked if ECPD might implement a program similar to La Mesa’s to help educate merchants on how to spot skimming devices to protect consumers.
He responded via email, “We are going to put together a post on our department social media. It’s going to show how quickly they can be put on and what to look for when you are at a point of sale. This should help both businesses and consumers locate them."
This wasn't the first report of a skimming device stealing benefits from a customer at the Food 4 Less in ELCajon.
Gehr says he notified both Food 4 Less and its parent corporation, Kroeger, and mentioned our media investigation.
Soon after, on April 7, he advised ECM that he went grocery shopping that morning at the same store. “Surprise! They recently installed new/different card readers at the register checkout," he told ECM. "No rubber-style guard around the keypad for these new models, so nowhere to hide a pinhole camera” used by skimmers.
Gehr has added extra precautions now to his food shopping procedures.
“I had the cashier check the card reader for me, then I checked it personally by looking closely, tugging on the device, and making sure the safety tape was not tampered with. Of course when I got home, I called the number on the back of my EBT card and changed my PIN again. This will be my new routine from now on,” he concludes.
The County also additional tips on how to protect your EBT card from skimmers and other types of scams: https://www.countynewscenter.com/protect-your-ebt-cards/.
The County advises EBT card holders to never share personal information like your social security number, bank information, EBT card or PIN number with strangers or organizations you are not familiar with.
“The State of California and the County of San Diego will NEVER call or text asking for your card or PIN number,” the County advises, adding that you should keep your PIN number a secret and change it often.
Food benefits aren’t the only types of benefits on some EBT cards. You can sign up for direct deposit if you are a part of the CalWORKs Program, so benefits go directly into your bank account instead of a card. Many banks offer free accounts if you sign up for direct deposit. You can enroll or stop direct deposit at any time. Each month you will be able to access your benefits on time through your bank account. This protects your benefits and prevents fraud.
“While the County is able to replace stolen benefits in most cases, this process typically takes a few days and does not guarantee you will get your money back,” the County site states, a lesson that Gehr and others have learned the hard way.
The state is working to upgrade EBT security technology. Until that happens, and even after, the County recommends that everyone take steps to protect their benefits.
Report EBT theft by calling (866) 262-9881.