EDITORIALS

No one looks at ID in the self-checkout lane: LePage’s EBT fraud-fighting measure is ineffective at fighting fraud

This is a sample photo EBT card.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
This is a sample photo EBT card. Buy Photo
Posted May 03, 2014, at 6:17 a.m.

Recipients of public assistance in the Bangor region are starting to have their photos taken and printed on newly formulated electronic benefit transfer cards as part of a pilot project. If Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has its way, photo IDs on EBT cards will soon be required of most Maine recipients of food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The photos, according to the administration, offer an extra fraud-fighting measure that could aid in the prosecution of EBT card trafficking. EBTs with picture IDs would be less susceptible to misuse, the argument goes.

But if LePage’s primary interest were actually combating EBT-related fraud — rather than capitalizing on the political advantages of looking like a welfare fraud crusader — his administration would have explored the experience of states that have required picture IDs on EBT cards and concluded the requirement is most likely to be a wasted effort with the potential to cause more problems than it solves.

To start, Maine is moving ahead with the pilot project against the advice of officials from the federal Food and Nutrition Service, who have warned that the move could put the state at legal risk and at risk of losing federal assistance. That’s irresponsible enough.

Plus, the LePage administration is pursuing this initiative without first documenting its need or the existence of the problem it’s supposed to solve.

“EBT cards are often traded as currency, and EBT cards have been seized during drug busts,” LePage said last week in his weekly radio address, citing three recent arrests that turned up misused EBT cards. “We have real evidence of the problem.”

As far as documentation beyond anecdotes goes, fraud in the federal food stamp program, which accounts for the vast majority of money transacted using EBT cards, is low nationally and even lower in Maine. In federal fiscal year 2012, officials determined $1.42 million in food stamp benefits — mostly federal funds — were spent fraudulently in Maine, out of nearly $377 million issued. That’s 0.38 percent, compared with 0.49 percent nationally.

Some 253,000 Maine residents from 131,000 households received food stamp assistance at the time, according to the federal government. The average monthly benefit was $124 per person.

If the LePage administration had documented EBT fraud in Maine and judiciously determined it was a problem that demanded action, it’s unlikely the administration would have settled on a photo ID requirement for EBT card holders. The federal government has repeatedly advised states that the photo ID requirement is an ineffective fraud deterrent. And states that have implemented EBT photo IDs have found the same through experience.

The reasons are simple.

Under federal law, any member of a household receiving the assistance, as well as anyone else designated by the family, is allowed to use the EBT card, not just the head of household whose photo would appear on the card. A retailer wouldn’t be able to deny a transaction because the purchaser’s photo did not appear on the EBT card.

Also under federal law, retailers are required to treat EBT cardholders no differently from users of credit and debit cards. Cashiers, therefore, can’t ask to inspect EBT cards unless they also inspect every credit and debit card. It’s common practice for cashiers not to inspect cards, and inspection would be even less likely at supermarket self-checkout lanes, which have become increasingly common.

In 2001, a Missouri audit found the state’s photo ID requirement (which has since been removed) was ineffective at fighting fraud because of the nature of federal benefit programs. The EBT card didn’t provide cardholders with valid identification, either, because the cards display no identifying information — no address, no date of birth — beyond a name. The Missouri audit found the cost of keeping the photo ID requirement in place, with no proven benefit, would increase substantially.

Massachusetts, which introduced a photo ID requirement last year, previously dropped an EBT photo requirement in 2005, citing high administrative costs and ineffectiveness as a fraud deterrent.

Other states have already plodded the path Maine is starting down just now. Their experience should indicate to LePage that EBT card photo IDs are ineffective in accomplishing the goals he professes to want to accomplish this election year.

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