CalFresh Recipients Say EBT and Cards Hacked by Scammers

It was at the checkout lane at the grocery store when Sean Ostriker learned something was wrong with his CalFresh EBT card.

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Some CalFresh recipients have reached out to the I-Team saying their electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, cards have been hacked by scammers.

The state uses these cards to distribute money to low income residents, which they can use to buy food. But now, after getting hacked, some recipients are left penniless.

The I-Team dug into how bad the problem is and what you can do to keep your money safe.

It was at the checkout lane at the grocery store when Sean Ostriker learned something was wrong with his CalFresh EBT card. 

“It was denied. It said I had no funds there,” he said.

Ostriker later checked the card’s balance, and said $280 was gone. He filed a complaint with the California Department of Social Services, or CDSS, which runs the program. In the meantime, CDSS issued Ostriker a new card. And he said money was stolen from that one too, this time $330.

Ostriker said both times the stolen funds were used at a convenience store 3,000 miles away in Brooklyn. Other CalFresh recipients have complained online about the exact same thing. 


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“It sucks that the state is supposed to be providing these benefits to the people who need it, and it’s instead going to scammers with seemingly no end in sight,” said Ostriker.

It turns out that the cards are easy for scammers to hack and duplicate, because they contain old technology - a magnetic stripe - instead of the harder-to-hack “chip” technology.

CDSS admits it’s a problem. It turned over a year’s worth of data after the I-Team requested it. We learned recipients of CalFresh and CalWorks, another state-funded EBT program, reported scammers have stolen nearly $24 million from their cards. CDSS said fraudsters either skimmed the cards or duped recipients into sharing their card information through fake texts or calls. 

“Clearly, as of now, our cards are being skimmed incredibly easily. Our benefits are really vulnerable and we have no protection,” said Ostriker.

The I-Team asked to interview the director of CDSS, but a spokesperson said they couldn’t accommodate us. Instead, the spokesperson said in an email that CDSS is exploring new protection tools to mitigate and prevent theft, like allowing recipients to access benefits through their cell phone instead of a physical card. 

CDSS also said stolen benefits are usually refunded to recipients within 10 days, although it can take longer. 

In fact, Ostriker waited several weeks. He said CDSS finally reimbursed him most, but not all, of his money. 

“Luckily I'm in a position where my family can help me out,” he said.

Here are some tips to keep your EBT money safe:

  • When using your card at store checkouts, fidget with the terminal to make sure scammers haven’t placed a skimming device on top. They’re often flimsy and you should be able to spot it.
  • Never respond to texts or calls about your EBT card, even concerning ones that say your card has been locked. These are likely scammers trying to steal your money. 

Watch this video for more tips. 

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