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Originally published April 21, 2011 at 3:48 PM | Page modified April 21, 2011 at 3:54 PM

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Guest columnist

DSHS must tighten benefit-card rules and crack down on fraud

Guest columnists Andy Hill and Troy Kelley argue the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services has done to little to prevent fraudulent use of its electronic benefits transfer cards, which are intended to help needy families feed their children.

Special to The Times

quotes This story is very funny to me. It's like the writer thought we didn't already know... Read more
quotes I'm not sure which is more infuriating: The people committing this fraud, or the agency... Read more
quotes DSHS cares little about managing the taxpayers money. Their goal is to dole out as... Read more

THE Department of Social and Health Services' handling of state welfare and food stamp programs has become an open invitation to thieves and criminals to profit from defrauding the state.

Guess who picks up the tab? You do.

Taxpayers are being taken for a ride as the agency's lax policies let staffers dole out multiple state-issued debit cards with few checks and balances.

The electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards were originally designed to help low-income families feed their children. Yet some have been cashed in at casinos, adult-entertainment venues, tattoo parlors, liquor stores and a host of places not at all associated with feeding and clothing children.

A recent KING-TV story revealed the stunning statistic that tens of thousands of DSHS clients have been receiving replacement EBT cards each month — no questions asked. In fact, DSHS replaced an average of 27,000 EBT cards each month last year and more than 20,000 people had their cards replaced three or more times. Almost 100 had their cards replaced 20 times or more in a two-year period.

The report highlighted how this easy reissue of EBT cards was leading to fraud. It documented sales of the cards — at deep discounts — on the street and on Craigslist.org, the classified-ad website.

The reporter went to the home of Allen Jones, a 23-year-old jobless man in King County. Jones was offering an EBT card loaded with $600 worth of state benefits for as little as $200 in cash. Although DSHS said it had been looking for Jones for weeks and was unable to find him, it took the reporter about five minutes and one email to locate him.

As state legislators, we have approached DSHS repeatedly, asking it to investigate and solve this fraud problem. However, EBT cards continue to be sold for cash. In fact, drug detectives say EBT cards are currency on the street and they are handed over to dealers in exchange for drugs. After a deal, the drug user simply visits a DSHS office to get a new card.

Imagine being a state representative and learning, almost two years ago, that EBT cards are being sold openly on a Tacoma street corner. Then asking DSHS why the card's only security feature is a PIN, making it easy for anyone to use the card. The cardholder's name is not even included on the card.

That's what led to this year's House Bill 1927, bipartisan legislation that would have placed the client's photo on the card, but DSHS claimed that it wouldn't work and the bill languished in committee.

Or imagine being a state senator who, in 2011, is alerted by a constituent that EBT cards were being sold on Craigslist, and asked DSHS to launch an investigation. The agency claimed it was unable to find anything, yet a TV reporter was able to locate the seller in minutes.

When asked later how many hours the DSHS investigation unit spent on the case, the agency's only response was to say it would try it again, along with a request for a screen capture of the original Craigslist listing.

DSHS took a first step toward improving its replacement-card policy following the KING-TV investigation by acknowledging the need for a recipient's name on the card. However, much more must be done to put a stop to the misuse.

As for Jones, DSHS still cannot find him even though both KING-TV and Jones' mother told DSHS where he was and that they are concerned with his illegal activities.

As legislators, we plan to support measures to help ensure accountability. Next year, we'll continue to support HB 1927, which would offer photo ID at the bank vendor's expense, making fraud much more difficult. As for this year, we'll vote for SB 5921, a bipartisan omnibus bill that seeks to change several DSHS policies and moves its investigation function to the state auditor's office.

We will do our part, but we are convinced that public attention and pressure will ultimately crack down on such fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars.

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