John Comoza, 58, was charged with 23 counts of identity theft in Pierce County last December in what investigators called one of the most unusual cases of food stamp fraud they had ever seen.
According to Tacoma police and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services fraud division, Comoza stole money from at least 23 Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT accounts. And the way he did it according to investigators was to generate account numbers of EBT card holders without ever coming into contact with the victims or even getting his hands on the cards and numbers, then charged the cards for purchases from his retail meat business.
“(They) didn’t even realize the purchase had been made until they went to use their card again and the balance was down to nearly nothing or completely drained,” said Detective Bert Hayes of the Tacoma police department.
Hayes investigated Comoza for several months along with an agent with the United States Department of Agriculture. EBT cards, or supplemental nutrition funds, also known as food stamps come from the USDA and are then distributed by state agencies. In Washington that’s done by DSHS.
Hayes said what Comoza did was take a known EBT account number then generated more account numbers using a simple mathematical formula that led him to existing subsequent accounts. The formula allowed Comoza to figure out what other numbers would be without ever seeing a card or getting the number from a card holder. He’s charged with stealing nearly $10,000. and police believe that’s only part of the money he’s taken from accounts without the card holder’s knowledge.
Hayes said the method Comoza used for generating subsequent account numbers then charging them is so simple he refused to even describe how it can be done for fear others would duplicate it.
Comoza could charge EBT cards because he owned a retail business called John’s Meat and Seafoods based in Federal Way. The company sold meat from trucks delivering directly to clients. Comoza was authorized to charge EBT accounts without using a PIN required for most sales because some sales were done online.
“This was unique to us”, said Steve Lowe, a fraud investigator with DSHS. “Actually he just credit it to his retailer account. He took the benefits as if a client had walked in and bought food from him and then he asked the federal government to reimburse him.”
KIRO 7 made numerous attempts to contact the USDA to find out more about the hacking method allegedly used by Comoza and the possibility of similar thefts, but a USDA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on the case. After several phone calls and nearly a dozen emails, the USDA simply stopped responding to requests for interviews.
Hayes said he’s certain the method is being used elsewhere. “I’m sure that major cities all over the country are having this issue,” said Hayes. Asked if he believes the thefts could involve millions in tax payer dollars Hayes responded, “I would say yes.”
Comoza has since vanished. He failed to appear for arraignment on identity theft charges on Dec. 3 and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Hayes said he has family in Alaska and Nevada and has likely fled the state.
“I would like to see him in jail, obviously,” said Lowe. “because he stole from the most needy in the state.”