Renee Z is afraid of traveling. She tries to avoid driving on major highways, she’s never been on an airplane and she won’t go on boats. Yet here she was, headed southbound on I-95 more than 50 miles from her home in Baltimore County.

This was that important. This was for her kids. Highway or not, she needed answers.

As she entered a convenience store in Temple Hills in Prince George’s County, Renee nervously scanned the store for someone to ask for help. She had an unusual request: Could she watch security footage of recent customers making a large purchase at the store?

After relaying her story to several employees, one of them at last invited her into the control room to watch the videos. The employee scrolled through hours of footage. And then there they were: a man and a woman buying almost $1,200 worth of baby formula.

Renee didn’t recognize them, but angry tears crept into her eyes. They were using some of the nearly $3,000 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that had been stolen from her account weeks earlier — making her one of a growing number of victims of benefits theft across the country.

And so far she had received little assistance from the Baltimore County Police Department and Maryland’s Department of Human Services (DHS) to get her money back and solve the crime. It felt like no one cared about her case.

So she took up the search herself. And now the culprits seemed to be right there, on a grainy computer monitor in a store she had never heard of and in a town she’d never been to.

“How can these people do that and don’t have no cares?” said Renee, who only wanted to be identified using her last initial because she was concerned about her family’s safety.

She assumed that finding them would be the end of late bills, unanswered phone calls, and a half-full fridge. She’d solved the crime, found the bad guys, and sent all her findings to the police and social services. Surely something would be done now.

Nationwide fraud

More than 800,000 Maryland residents receive SNAP benefits, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. SNAP is a needs-based program that gives low-income individuals and families financial assistance to purchase food using government-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

State lawmakers have scheduled a hearing for Sept. 20 over growing concerns about drops in SNAP enrollment and fraud. According to Maryland DHS spokesperson Katherine Morris, there has been evidence of “a nationwide EBT card cloning scheme.” From January 2022 to early May 2022, Maryland DHS has received 240 reports of alleged fraud for about $163,000 of SNAP and Temporary Cash Assistance (TCA) benefits.

When alleged fraud occurs, Morris said, “federal regulations prohibit states from replacing SNAP benefits using federal funds.” That leaves victims like Renee with little recourse to regain the stolen money. Although they are encouraged to report the theft to both DHS and local police, some victims say they rarely receive updates on their cases from police, and, if they hear from DHS, it’s usually the agency telling them it found no evidence of fraud.

Checking the benefits

Renee did everything right.

When the state erroneously shut off her benefits in spring 2022, she spent almost four months repeatedly visiting social services in the dingy building on Eastern Boulevard, refiling all her paperwork and clearing every new bureaucratic hurdle. During this same time, SNAP outreach caseworkers reported administrative hurdles and mistakes created by the Department of Human Services.

By late July 2022, she was relieved when the state restored her benefits with back pay, putting her balance at almost $3,000. No more getting behind on bills. No more picking up additional shifts to keep food on the table.

When Renee started seeing Facebook posts about people’s benefits being stolen, she felt sad for the victims but knew it wouldn’t happen to her. She always kept her card safe in her purse and didn’t let her teenage daughter touch it. Renee only used it at certain stores, and never shared her PIN with anyone. When the posts continued to flood her news feed, she figured she’d check just in case. When Renee signed onto her benefits portal on Aug. 9, her heart sank. Her balance was down to $66.

“They took everything,” Renee said.

Following the DHS instructions to the letter, Renee immediately made the first of what would be a dizzying number of phone calls to the Department of Human Services and the Baltimore County police. Soon her life revolved around waiting hours on hold, leaving unanswered voice messages, and, in the rare instance she got through, talking to an employee who would tell her there was nothing they could do. Numerous DHS employees explained that Maryland doesn’t reimburse for benefit theft, unlike other states. And though this was happening to a lot of people, and Renee had the highest amount stolen they’d heard of, all they could recommend was she leave it to the police and get a new benefits card. The department did not respond to questions about the specifics of Renee’s case.

Fruitless calls

Renee called anyone she thought could help: other local police departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Office of the Inspector General and local politicians. As her call log mounted, she began to detect ambivalence toward her case, as if it was somehow less serious than regular theft. “I feel like they kind of look down on you sometimes,” Renee said. “Because it’s only food stamps.”

She isn’t proud to be on food stamps; but her family needs them. Her paycheck from working nights as a nursing assistant — the household’s only steady income — doesn’t stretch far enough to feed her three kids and cover expenses. With food stamps, she’s able to use her wages for rent, the car, and occasional extras for her kids — like swimming lessons at the YMCA or a Slurpee at 7-Eleven.

Renee knew that people assume the worst when they hear you’re on food stamps: you’re lazy, you don’t have a job and take advantage of the system. So as she made dozens of phone calls, she began to develop talking points to let them know that she wasn’t like that. And she almost always ended by mentioning her children: “It was for my kids so my kids could have what they needed.”

Baltimore County Police Officer Timothy Valis was assigned to investigate Renee’s case during field training at the police academy. He didn’t even graduate until Aug. 25. When they first spoke, Valis and another officer made it clear that they couldn’t promise they would find the culprits, and even if they did, they couldn’t necessarily get her money back. Renee suggested they ask the stores for security camera footage capturing the thefts.

Most of the stores were in Washington, D.C., or the outskirts of Maryland, over 50 miles away from her home, spanning multiple jurisdictions. She soon started calling local police departments herself, but they passed the buck to Baltimore County, and each store Renee called said they would only show the footage to police.

Then, at last, a lead: A sympathetic employee, likely breaking store policy, sent her photos of a man and a woman caught on security camera footage. They bought almost $1,200 worth of Similac baby formula over two transactions matching those from the exact date and amount of Renee’s theft. The employee also sent her a video of the couple’s silver minivan driving away, but it was too blurry to make out the license plate.

She immediately sent the photos to Valis on Aug. 12. He replied the next day and said he’d update the report with her findings. But then, silence. She didn’t know if the police were still investigating, if they had called any of the other police departments, or if they had tried to pull any of the footage. She repeatedly texted and called him asking for updates. Nothing.

On Aug. 25, she received a letter from DHS: “We have reviewed this claim but did not find a system error or that the card was used fraudulently ... As such, we are unable to replace the benefits related to this claim.”

All the phone calls and all the evidence she’d collected hadn’t been enough. Renee was disheartened, but not surprised. Near the end of the letter, she saw she could appeal the decision. The next day, she began a two-day journey to visit every store where the benefits were used. If the police weren’t going to get the footage, she’d do it herself.

Temple Hills footage

And that’s how she ended up in Temple Hills studying the grainy footage. She watched as the couple used copies of her SNAP card to purchase baby formula in two separate transactions on Aug. 7 at 4:30 p.m. — around the same time Renee was shopping at a Walmart in Dundalk roughly 50 miles away.

“How can I be in two places at one time?” Renee said. How did they even copy her card? Probably skimming, the employee said, referring to a device used on ATMs that can collect users’ card information, including SNAP cards. It was happening a lot these days, the employee added. At the store, it didn’t necessarily raise red flags that the man and woman each bought almost $600 worth of baby formula, especially since the shortage.

According to security expert Brian Krebs, the same electronic safeguards used with credit cards are not applied to EBT cards, making them more vulnerable to fraud. And unlike credit cards, a bank cannot undo a fraudulent transaction for benefits theft. Once that money is lost, it’s lost for good, unless the government replaces it.

“Many of those benefit programs have almost negligent account security,” Krebs said. “And these are people that don’t need to be robbed.”

Caught in the act

Renee’s next stop was a CVS on Central Avenue in Seat Pleasant near the D.C. border.

As at the other stores, the employees wouldn’t show Renee the footage without police present. It was against store policy. But, the manager said, the Seat Pleasant Police Department was just around the corner. “So, if I went there, would they come right over here?” Renee asked.

That’s exactly what Officer Charles Bowers did. He turned on his car’s flashing lights to personally escort Renee back to the CVS.

“We’re not playing! Look, he’s directing us with his lights on,” Renee said excitedly. Finally, she was getting somewhere. If only DHS could see her now.

At CVS, Officer Bowers disappeared into the control room. When he emerged, he had retrieved footage showing two women entering the store around 1:30 pm on Aug. 7 and buying more than $200 worth of the blue-lid Similac formula. The store’s cameras captured them driving away in a silver minivan. Renee recognized one of the women. She had seen her before in the footage from the Temple Hills store wearing a light blue top with ruffled sleeves, navy striped skirt, and cross-body black purse. “It’s the same woman doing it,” Renee said.

(left) A video still showing a couple purchasing almost $1,200 in baby formula using SNAP benefits. (right) A video still of a woman leaving from the CVS in Seat Pleasant.

If this wasn’t enough proof for the appeal, Renee didn’t know what would be.

Card skimmer found

“I’m getting a runaround every which way I go,” Renee said. Despite escorting her to obtain the footage, Seat Pleasant police wouldn’t help further. Meanwhile, Officer Valis hadn’t picked up the phone or responded to her texts since Aug. 13, even after she sent him the new footage. She didn’t know how long she could keep doing all this.

When she finally reached Valis the next week, she had a lot of questions: Why had all her calls gone to voicemail? Why hadn’t he answered her for weeks? She told him how angry she was, that she was doing all the investigative work, and that she’d contacted a news reporter.

After their call, Officer Valis texted Renee on Sunday, Sept. 4.

“Did you by chance use your card at the 7-11 on old Eastern Avenue?” Valis asked.

“Yup, I sure did but not exactly sure when it was,” Renee responded.

“OK” Valis said. “We just got a card skimmer from there.”

Robbed and still waiting

Amid all her detective work, the other parts of Renee’s life didn’t stop. An impacted wisdom tooth cracked in half. The dentist blamed stress and teeth grinding. The pain was so intense she could barely talk, and she missed a follow-up interview for a second job. The procedure isn’t covered by insurance and could cost up to $595 — money she doesn’t have. Her kids had also just started school: her oldest son was starting fifth grade and her youngest was going into preschool. Their birthdays are coming up. She wanted to get them birthday cakes and goodie bags. Maybe next year.

Renee doesn’t know who she’s more mad at: the people in the videos, the officers who promised to help her, or the government that hasn’t reimbursed her. Yes, the people in the footage stole from her. But in a way, the government and the police did too. They robbed her of time: dozens of hours she could’ve spent with her kids, finding another job, or picking up extra work.

“I don’t feel that I should have had to do as much as I did,” Renee said. “I feel like they are failing not just me, but a lot of people.”

Meanwhile, Renee is still waiting. Waiting to hear from DHS about her appeal. Waiting to see if she’ll ever get her money back. Waiting for someone to call her back.

“I’m tired of this.”

Video editing by Krishna Sharma. Banner reporter Brenda Wintrode contributed to this article.

Correction

An earlier version of this story said that Baltimore County Police Officer Timothy Valis wasn't sworn in until Aug. 25. He was sworn in before his field training and again when he graduated from the Academy on Aug. 25.

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