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Vulnerable San Diegans target of newest criminal scams

It’s been a struggle for Kiki Turner since she lost her job in May. She’s a single mom of two.

"At that time I was paying my rent partially and you know just trying to stay above water," Turner said. She’s been getting by with temp work as a dental hygienist and public assistance. The assistance now comes on an Electronic Benefit Transfer card or EBT but in October when she went to use it there was a problem.

"Oct. 1 my benefits landed on my EBT card and by 8:05 a.m. they were taken off by somebody who either had a duplicate card or my pin number … it was everything I depended on I didn’t have any money at the time," she said.

Turner said she couldn’t believe that this could happen.

"Like somebody being able to skim and scam welfare benefits I’ve never heard of that before," she said.

She quickly filed a police report and a report with the county and took all the steps they asked her to, but her claim was denied. The letter came back saying it was her card that was used, she was shocked because the card was used in Fullerton at the exact time she tried to use it in San Diego according to the record on her account.

"I've never even been to Fullerton," she said.

By this time it was weeks later with no answers and no money.

Fortunately, Turner reached out to Melissa Hernandez, a friend who runs a women's advocacy nonprofit, who immediately jumped into action. Hernandez soon uncovered this was not the only case.

"I went on Facebook and I put a big post and I said if you have been scammed with your EBT card and have not got any solutions done please reach me and I gave them my personal slash business number and my phone just started ringing off crazy," said Hernandez. She also set up a meeting with her County Supervisor Nora Vargas and her staff.

San Diego County said this is being done by an organized crime ring. The State of California has issued a warning saying theft is up 4,000% with EBT cards. The main way criminals are draining funds is by using skimming devices on top of ATM and point of sale devices to clone the cards. So far 3,983 people in San Diego have been victims of this crime, the most vulnerable who rely on this card to buy food and secure shelter. Every county in the state has been affected. Hernandez said Vargas and her staff coordinated efforts to help victims but she's only helping those she knows and reached out to her. She's doing it pro bono, not part of her work.

"And in about 24 hours, majority I want to say about out of 23 of them got their money back," Hernandez said.

Among them Turner but she fell too far behind on her bill because of the wait

"Now my rent, they’re not accepting my rent, three day notice, unlawful detainer, that’s what I’m out doing now I’m looking for a place to stay," Turner said.  

Vargas' sent us this statement:

“As soon as I heard from one of the affected residents in my district, I immediately asked our staff to work hard to support anyone impacted and help them reinstate their benefits as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this is a nationwide crime that is affecting thousands of residents, including close to 4,000 here in San Diego County, and we’re committed to raising awareness about this issue in our community. It’s cowardly and heartless to steal someone’s benefits, especially as we approach the holidays. If anyone needs help, don’t hesitate to contact our staff at (866) 262-9881.”

Turner said it’s tough for her to speak out but she did it to help mothers in her situation who are too embarrassed to ask for help, thinking they did something wrong. "You feel like you’re the one doing it you feel like a  victim, like you’re being victimized twice," Turner said.

Hernandez and Turner worry for the rest of the people and the system that has people waiting for 30 days often several times if they get denied. They hope especially for the holidays mothers and children do not get put on the street or have to go to bed hungry.

KPBS News reached out to the county to convey that same message they assured us they were expediting the claims and would help Turner find housing. They urged anyone who is a victim of this crime to call the county at 886-262-9981 and report it immediately so the fraud stops. They also said that it is important to call 1-877-328-9677 and change the pin or password on your cash card once a month in order to prevent fraud and this line is open 24 hours a day.

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