A Maryland Mother of 3 Was Defrauded of Her Food Stamps. She Had to Investigate It Herself.

Renee Z. will likely never be refunded the $2,000 in SNAP benefits people stole from her account.

A Maryland Mother of 3 Was Defrauded of Her Food Stamps. She Had to Investigate It Herself.
Photo:AP Photo/Julio Cortez (AP)

Last month, Renee Z., a Baltimore-based working mother of three children, was defrauded of nearly $3,000 in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits her solitary-income family depends on for survival. After receiving little assistance from the Baltimore County Police Department and the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS), she claimed she was forced to conduct her own investigation in a new report published by the Baltimore Banner. What she found—that according to video surveillance, a man and woman had stolen over $2,000 worth of benefits from her account—should’ve resulted in some form of justice. However, Renee may never even be refunded.

According to the Banner, Renee is one of a growing number of victims of SNAP fraud. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates that more than 800,000 Maryland residents are recipients of SNAP, the financial assistance program that enables low-income and working-class individuals and families to purchase food via Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. Katherine Morris, the state’s DHS spokesperson, said there’s evidence of “a nationwide EBT card cloning scheme.” Between January 2022 and early May 2022, 240 reports of alleged fraud for about $163,000 of SNAP and Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) benefits were received by the Maryland DHS.

It’s noted that state lawmakers have scheduled a hearing for decreases in SNAP enrollment and fraud, and yet, Morris claimed victims like Renee aren’t likely to see a refund for the stolen money as, “federal regulations prohibit states from replacing SNAP benefits using federal funds.” The only viable action for victims—even Renee who was told by numerous DHS employees that she was thieved of the most money among all reported cases in the state—is to file a theft report with both the DHS and local police, which may never be resolved.

Sadly, law enforcement has proven entirely ineffective in Renee’s case. After she first discovered the money was missing from her account, she made a habit of regularly calling anyone she thought might be able to provide assistance: the State Office of the Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local politicians, and perhaps the most obvious, area law enforcement. However, she soon got the notion via multiple phone calls that no one was particularly concerned about her case. “I feel like they kind of look down on you sometimes,” Renee said. “Because it’s only food stamps.”

Timothy Valis, now a Baltimore County Police Officer, was assigned to investigate Renee’s claims while training in the police academy. Valis reportedly did not become a sworn officer until August 25, 2022, weeks after he was first given the case. In fact, it was Renee who said she first made the suggestion that they contact the stores of the large purchases listed on her SNAP account portal to inquire whether they could hand over surveillance footage. Such stores claimed they couldn’t show Renee the tapes, only the police. And because each one was located over 50 miles from her home and spanned a number of jurisdictions, local departments only redirected her back to her native Baltimore County Police.

When it became clear the latter wasn’t going to secure the footage, Renee took it upon herself to beg store employees for any evidence of large purchases made recently. After multiple pleas, one employee reportedly showed her photographs of a couple purchasing almost $1,200 worth of Similac baby formula over two transactions that matched the exact date and amount of Renee’s theft. Notably, the transaction occurred amidst a nationwide shortage on formula. The employee also had a photograph of the car they departed in. Immediately, Renee handed them over to the Baltimore Police, to no avail. Weeks passed without a word, despite her requests for an update.

Even still, despite such stress that Renee developed health ailments she couldn’t afford treatment for and her children starting school, she continued to investigate. Ultimately, other employees at a grocery store and a CVS miles away agreed to show Renee footage that implicated the same woman from the previous photographs. At the CVS, the woman was again purchasing the same baby formula—this time, $200 worth. An employee theorized the thieves had been “skimming,” a device on ATMs that can collect a person’s card information, including SNAP cards which, according to an expert, are more susceptible to fraud.

All of her findings—clear photographs and video footage—which were submitted to the DHS and Baltimore Police, have yet to result in any justice. She hasn’t been reimbursed, as her theft claim was dismissed by the DHS (she’s since appealed their decision). There have been no answers or information from law enforcement regarding the status of her case, nor any correspondence apart from a test exchange since September 4. And she wasn’t able to give two of her children birthdays this year due—in part due to being preoccupied with the case, but moreso because she didn’t have the money to celebrate.

“I’m tired of this,” Renee told the Banner, noting that while she was angry with the people who’ve defrauded her, she’s more enraged by the agencies who purport to be worthy of trust. “I don’t feel that I should have had to do as much as I did,” she said. “I feel like they are failing not just me, but a lot of people.”

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