International criminals targeting some of California's poorest families, stealing state benefits

The LAPD and the state officials are issuing a warning to some of California's poorest families — international criminals could be targeting their government benefits.

"We believe it's quite organized," said Capt. Alfonso Lopez, who oversees the LAPD's Commercial Crimes Division. He added that they are seeing criminals from Europe flying in and using cloned cards to steal state CalWorks and CalFresh payments, which provide food and cash assistance to low-income Californians.

"I'm like, how am I going to pay my rent," said Corina Hernandez, who had almost 700 dollars taken out of her Electronic Benefits Payment or EBT card account. The state loads government assistance payments onto the cards. "I take care of three of my grandsons so that money is important to me."

Her daughter-in-law Cassandra Lopez said panic set in when she too discovered her monthly payment had been stolen. "I work, and I have a little boy to support, not just myself," she said.

Both showed FOX 11 the fraudulent transactions on their accounts. In both cases the money was withdrawn from ATMs in Orange County. Both women live in LA County

"I don't use that bank," said Hernandez. Even more surprising, both transactions took place minutes after the money had posted.

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Capt. Lopez said the criminals know the exact date and time the state will load benefits payments onto the EBT cards and are standing by at ATMs to withdraw the money as soon as it posts.

It's a troubling trend nationwide. Data from the California Department of Social Services or CDSS which administers EBT cards, show an alarming jump in thefts. Back in July 2021, the state was shelling out about $92,000 a month in reimbursements for EBT fraud, but by August of last year that number had soared to over $4 million a month.

Capt. Lopez said the LAPD has received 5,000 reports of EBT card fraud since this past August alone. He showed FOX 11 examples of skimmers, which are devices the crooks install at bank ATMs, or even retail stores to clone the EBT cards. Scammers can even place tiny cameras near the skimmers, so they can capture people entering their pins.

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Many of the scammers are homegrown, but Capt. Lopez added that international criminals are getting in on the action. "There's at least three or four countries that we are looking at," he said, but declined to name them citing saying that could compromise the investigation. The LAPD is now part of the Southern California High Tech Task Force, partnering up with other local agencies and the federal government to combat the problem. Just this past September they made over a dozen arrests.

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A comparison of a real card reader versus a skimmer. The lights on the skimmer's keys are dulled

Capt. Lopez said part of what makes the EBT cards so vulnerable is that they have magnetic strips and no chip. California Gov. Gavin Newsom is now asking for more money to make the EBT cards more secure. The CDSS, which is the agency that oversees the programs, said fraud makes up only a tiny part of its overall budget, but is launching and education campaign. 

Capt. Lopez is also trying to get the word out. He said skimming machines can be installed in minutes without banks or stores being the wiser. But there are some tell-tale signs, including wobbly frames on the card readers, and keys that have no backlight.

He also recommended using your hand to cover the keypad when you enter your pin, so cameras can't capture your number, and using Apple Pay or phone wallets if possible, and tap to pay when it becomes available on EBT cards. 

Hernandez and Lopez now wonder where they came across a skimmer. They now stand by at ATMs to withdraw their money the minute it posts, worried if they don't criminals will get to it first.

"I don't know your situation but you need to stop," said Lopez of the criminals. "We have families to take care of."