DSHS investigating after more than a thousand Washington families’ state benefits stolen by scammers

SEATTLE — Families across Washington are learning the horrible news that their state benefits have been stolen by scammers.

To make matters worse, the state can’t replace or refund those benefits.

Sylvia Turner, who lives in Auburn, had $1,600 of her federal state and food benefits stolen.

“I went to get something for the kids to eat and the card kept declining,” said Turner. “It said, you have zero balance … and I was totally distraught because I couldn’t understand what happened.”

Turner, who is raising her seven grandchildren, is not alone. Thieves are wiping out recipients’ accounts statewide.

About 1,300 individuals have been affected in Washington alone, according to the Department of Social and Health Services.

“We are trying to problem solve collectively, proactively and as quickly as we possibly can,” said Leah Stajduhar, the senior director of DSHS Office of Fraud and Accountability.

Stajduhar says she has seen these cases of theft spread from New York to California.

“If another state has found a solution that’s working, we are listening and trying to implement it here in Washington,” said Stajduhar. “We know how important these benefits are to our clients.”

Turner saw that her benefits were used at a Red Apple grocery store on Beacon Hill, so she called the store’s general manager, Dean Hasegawa, to see if he could help.

“I have surveillance video and footage of it,” said Hasegawa. “It is not Sylvia. It was a gentleman, a female with a baby infant … they did two separate transactions between them.”

Hasegawa says the couple purchased large amounts of baby formula. One transaction totaled over $1,000. The second was nearly $400.

After reviewing the footage, he called DSHS and was ready to provide his information.

“When you call, you jump through all the numbers, the waiting on line and finally you get to the fraud department and you leave your name and number and hope they call you back. I didn’t receive a callback,” said Hasegawa.

After learning about Hasegawa’s experience, Stajduhar reiterated that the Office of Fraud and Accountability is doing all it can to resolve these cases.

“We are doing what we can on this side to go after these cases,” said Stajduhar.

“But somebody has to call?” asked KIRO 7′s Jesse Jones.

“Absolutely. And that is an area that we are reaching out to our retailers and asking for that,” said Stajduhar.

One more thing: If Turner’s money had been stolen from her bank account, the chances are high that she’d get it back.

But that won’t happen here, according to Babs Roberts, the director of the Community Services Division at DSHS.

“These are food assistance benefits that do not allow for us to replace benefits in these kinds of cases,” said Roberts. “We have very limited ability under federal rule to replace SNAP benefits, and state law does not give us authority to replace cash benefits.”

DSHS believes scammers may be using card skimmers to steal card data. Clients who receive benefits could also be targeted by using an unapproved app that has been compromised.

Still, the bottom line is that Turner and others who’ve been affected can’t catch up for Christmas.

“It still puts me in a bad position because last month, we had to buy food instead of paying rent. And now it’s Christmas time and we still have all this rent that we owe,” explained Turner. “DSHS left (us) no option. They left no financial resource option, period.”

If you receive benefits, DSHS says you should check for card skimmers when making a purchase and use the ebtEDGE app.

If you have problems with your case, you can call 1-800-865-7801.