Struggling to get by while battling bureaucracy, Baltimore benefits theft victim gets good news
Maryland officials restored some of Damon Minor’s benefits after he filed an appeal and a story appeared about his case. But many others aren’t so lucky.
Above: Baltimore resident Damon Minor, who struggled to get by after hackers stripped the funds off his electronic benefits card. (Fern Shen)
Damon Minor, a disabled former ironworker whose December food and disability benefits were stolen by hackers, was getting desperate.
He had reported the theft right away, only to be told that it was a widespread problem statewide.
Seven weeks then passed, and still no funds were showing up on the new Electronic Benefits Transfer card he’d been issued.
Going down in person at least 10 times to the Department of Social Services office, proved fruitless.
“Sometimes, I’d sit there from 9 to 1:30 or 2, and no one would even see me,” he recalled. “I’d just leave.”
Struggling to recover from several surgeries and scrimping on food purchases, he was lucky to have longtime housing advocate, Lauren Siegel, covering his rent.
But that couldn’t go on indefinitely, and, with Siegel’s help last week, he filed an appeal.
The Brew, which had written about Minor’s plight, inquired about his case with the Maryland Department of Human Services:
• Why were Minor and thousands of others who’d been victimized by shadowy hackers unable to access benefits for which they had qualified?
• Why was Minor’s only recourse a slow administrative appeal process?
By this point, the 52-year-old was owed two months worth of benefits.
The next day, January 25, it was clear that the bureaucratic winds had shifted.
Minor’s phone was “ringing all morning” with calls from Department of Social Services officials.
“They told me they did some investigation into my case, and they found out I was supposed to get the money. There was some kind of mix-up,” Minor said.
“They wanted me to sign a release saying I would not go forward with my appeal. They really wanted me to sign it” – Damon Minor.
He was to receive his January monthly benefits – $394 in federal SNAP benefits (food stamps) and $375 from Maryland’s TDAP (Temporary Disability Assistance Program).
But his December benefits were still delayed. Some kind of further review was needed, he was told.
Meanwhile, the DSS officials had a request.
“They wanted me to sign a release saying I would not go forward with my appeal. They really wanted me to sign that,” recalled Minor.
“I want to wait and see if they put the December money on there, like they said they would,” he explained.
As of today, February 1, the money had not come through.
Change of Tune
Minor says he knows the comparatively positive outcome of his case is unusual.
“What about the people out there who don’t have somebody like Ms. Lauren to support them?” he said, recalling the woman sitting next to him at the DSS office “with three children to feed” who had also lost her benefits to hackers.
“The rent man was about to put her out,” he said.
After his appeal, which alleged in detail that DSS had not followed the law, and the Brew news story, previously unavailable or unhelpful case workers were now sympathetic and apologetic.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re the one that had the article written,’” he said. “‘We had a big meeting about you and how people like you who did everything right shouldn’t have to run up here for their records.’”
Asked about Minor’s case, state officials said privacy rules prevented them from responding.
“As swiftly as possible”
Whether anything will change for other victims of hackers appears unlikely.
Hundreds of state residents have reported similar online theft of SNAP and other benefits, as have thousands nationwide.
But unlike other states, Maryland has not restored the benefits.
Queried by The Brew, a Department of Human Services official said the agency is working “as swiftly as possible” to implement the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act, which stipulates that states may now replace stolen SNAP benefits with federal funds.
But she noted they have not yet received guidelines from USDA on how to develop the plan.
Minor, meanwhile, is trying to remain upbeat.
He’s hoping the December benefits – and possibly even the February ones – will show up on his card soon.
A DSS caseworker told him that funds might be restored, for him and others “if the new governor [Democrat Wes Moore] signs a bill.”
The bill they were telling him about is HB-0502, the Prevent Electronic Benefits Theft Act. It was introduced in Annapolis last month by Baltimore Delegate Robbyn Lewis and Delegate Courtney Watson, who represents Howard County.
Under the measure, DHS would be required to reimburse a beneficiary for any benefits lost due to the fraudulent use of the beneficiary’s Electronic Benefits Transfer card.
“I can’t not work. I can’t sit around. I wasn’t raised that way” – Damon Minor.
If all goes well, Minor told The Brew, he’ll successfully complete his physical therapy following knee surgery, start getting disability and his pension after nearly 15 years as a union worker installing rebar, and go back to school.
“I’ve always wanted to be an electrical engineer. I can do it. I’m smart. I can read a blueprint backwards and forwards.”
Doing nothing, he said, is simply not an option.
“I can’t not work. I can’t sit around. I wasn’t raised that way.”