BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–Facing a “substantial increase” in people being robbed of their public benefits by fraudsters and scammers, Acting Commissioner Mary Sheehan asked lawmakers Tuesday to support a proposal in Gov. Maura Healey’s budget that would allow the Department of Transitional Assistance to offer recipients a new way to protect their accounts.

Across the country, criminals have deployed skimming devices on ATMs and point-of-sale card readers to steal EBT card numbers and PINs, or have scammed benefit recipients out of that information through phishing campaigns, and then stolen the benefits due to that person. The problem has particularly affected the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Sheehan said that more than $1.5 million in SNAP benefits have been reported stolen from Bay Staters.

Lawmakers at a Joint Committee on Ways and Means budget hearing Tuesday said the problem is common in Massachusetts, and that they hear about it often from constituents who try to use their benefits only to find out they have been robbed. Sen. Liz Miranda told a story of a working single mother in her district who lost $2,000 in Social Security and SNAP benefits because a machine she used at a bodega had been outfitted with a skimmer.

And while Sheehan said DTA has been working with local, state and federal law enforcement authorities to address the problem, she said her department’s role is really more about making sure its clients know to protect themselves and their accounts.

“I would love to prosecute these folks, believe me. There’s nothing more maddening to me than somebody stealing benefits from the people that need it the most,” Sheehan said when Rep. Richard Haggerty asked what DTA is doing to claw back stolen benefits and to hold bad actors accountable. She added at another point, “While DTA has implemented multiple strategies to protect client benefits, the bottom line is that we need additional resources to successfully slow down or stop these thefts.”

Healey’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal (H 1) includes $310,000 for DTA to purchase a new functionality from the state’s EBT vendor that would allow clients to remotely lock and unlock their EBT cards through a mobile app.

“Changing your PIN, which is what we’ve been messaging our clients, it works right away. However, if that client goes to another location or the same location and the information is stolen again, they’re going to have their benefits stolen again,” Sheehan said. “So what the locking and unlocking will allow them to do is only unlock their account at the point that they want to transact the benefit and use them. So they’ll be able to access the benefit and then immediately lock it down.”

That ability, Sheehan said, “will definitely be hugely effective for our clients.” Sheehan said that DTA is also implementing an analytics tool that is meant to identify clusters of rapid transactions happening out of state, which she said “is a clear indication that somebody has cloned a whole bunch of cards.” In many cases, DTA can verify that a transaction is fraudulent because it happens in another state on the same day that a client is making legitimate purchases at shops in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts was recently named by the federal Food and Nutrition Service as one of five states to participate in a federal mobile EBT pilot program that will give benefit recipients the ability to use their benefits by tapping or scanning their mobile device instead of using their physical EBT card. Sheehan said that program should also help protect clients from theft.

When the benefits stolen are cash benefits, DTA can reimburse the client once it has confirmed the fraud. But the situation is slightly different for stolen SNAP benefits.

The federal spending bill that Congress passed in December allows states to reinstate skimmed SNAP benefits using federal funds, but only those stolen between Oct. 1, 2022 and Sept. 30, 2024. Sheehan said Massachusetts had $1.5 million stolen prior to that “that we know of.” The federal policy also limits reimbursement to two months worth of benefits.

The House and Senate have each agreed, in a supplemental budget bill that still has not been sent to a conference committee or otherwise resolved into a final version, to provide $2 million for the reimbursement of SNAP benefits for victims who had their benefits skimmed between April 1, 2022 and September 30, 2022.

Sheehan said that the House version of the bill “aligns with the governor’s proposal, which aligns with the federal reimbursement” policy, but that the Senate bill includes “wraparound” language “where it tries to get to the full stolen benefit amount.”

“We’ll implement whichever bill comes out, or whatever compromise happens through that conference committee, and we’ll try to get those benefits out as soon as possible,” she said. “We are already working on the requirements for the systems changes to be able to do that. It will take a little bit because of the uncertainty on the bill as to what programming we need to do … we will do everything we can to get those benefits out as soon as possible.”