Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system

What is EBT?

All states have replaced paper “food stamp” coupons with a federally mandated Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system. “SNAP” — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, called “CalFresh” in California — recipients now use this electronic “debit card” system instead of the old-style food stamp coupons to purchase food. Federal SNAP regulations and related federal EBT policies dictate specific operational and functional requirements for EBT systems, including nation-wide interoperability among all states and territories. [See, generally, 7 C.F.R. § 274.8 (functional and technical EBT system requirements).]

The California Electronic Benefits Transfer Act, Welf. & Inst. Code § 10065, et seq., governs EBT in California. The California EBT regulations are located at MPP Division 16, set out in the California Electronic Benefit Transfer System Manual. All County Letters (ACLs) and All County Information Notices (ACINs) also govern EBT. For example, see ACIN I-25-03 (EBT questions and answers); ACL 03-58 (using EBT to voluntarily repay overissuances and use of expunged benefits); and ACL 05-28 (applying “dormant” EBT food stamp amounts to overissuances.

How the EBT system works

The EBT system relies on what is essentially a debit card system. Each county welfare department issues recipients a magnetic stripe card that works like a commercial ATM or debit card, to buy food at authorized grocery stores. [MPP § 16-001.12.] To use the system, recipients swipe their cards through a machine at the checkout counter called a “point of sale” or POS machine and enter a “personal identification number” or PIN for verification. [MPP § 16-001.13.] The EBT system automatically deducts the food’s cost from the monthly allotment and issues a receipt showing the balance. [7 C.F.R. §§ 274.7(d)(3), 274.8(b)(7); MPP §§ 16-001.134-.136, 16-310.21-.22.]

States must give the POS machines to stores that want them. [7 C.F.R. § 274.1(g)(4).] States must also supply a POS for every checkout lane in any store where CalFresh purchases account for at least 15% of total food sales, or if less than 15% then at least one EBT terminal for every $11,000 in monthly SNAP redemptions, up to the number of lanes in the store. [7 C.F.R. § 274.3(b)(1)-(2).] Stores cannot make recipients use a special “CalFresh benefits only” or “EBT only” checkout line. [7 C.F.R. § 274.7(f)(1).] Whenever the store is open, even in the middle of the night, at least one checkout lane with an EBT machine must be open. [7 C.F.R. §§ 274.7(e), 274.7(f)(2).]

EBT regulations recognize the need to provide manual transactions as a backup when the EBT system is down. However, USDA permits retailers to choose when to use the manual system if the electronic system is down. [7 C.F.R. §§ 274.8(a)(2)(v), 274.8(b)(3)(ii)(D), 274.8(b)(4)(ii)(A).]

Recipient protections

The California Electronic Benefit Act, Welfare and Institutions Code 10065  et. seq.; the California Electronic Benefit Transfer System Manual; and Section 274 of the federal SNAP regulations provide recipients with statutory and regulatory protections, including:

  • Broadly defined statewide EBT system access.
  • Reasonable access to the EBT system to accommodate challenges experienced by recipients related to physical and mental disabilities, language, lack of access, or other barriers. [MPP § 16-003.]
  • The option to select an individualized personal identification number (PIN). [7 C.F.R. § 274.2(f)(2); MPP § 16-520.1.]
  • The right for households with more than one adult to obtain multiple EBT cards. [MPP § 16-505.1.]
  • 24-hour toll-free telephone access for reporting lost or stolen EBT cards and obtaining replacement EBT cards and PINs. [7 C.F.R. § 274.2(e)(10)(v); MPP §§ 16-515.1, 16-515.3.]
  • Protection against loss of benefits to the recipient once an EBT card or PIN is reported lost or stolen. [MPP §§ 16-515.2-515.5, 16-517.2-.3, 16-520.32.]
  • Prompt replacement of lost or stolen benefits. [MPP § 16-517.1.]

[See, generally, Welf. & Inst. Code § 10072(a)-(g).]

Recipients may buy as much food as they need until benefits run out. [MPP § 16-310.3.] Benefits do not need to be used in the month of issuance, and remain on the EBT card. If a recipient moves to a new county, she will get a new EBT card, but can also continue using any benefits left on the old card.

However, if an EBT account is not accessed for 180 days, it will be listed as dormant; after 365 days, the account will be purged. [ACIN I-64-08.] Access to the account will be stopped after it becomes dormant; recipients must contact a worker to get the card reactivated for use. [Id.]  In addition, pursuant to the 2018 Farm Bill, benefits not used in 3 months can be moved offline, and benefits not used in 9 months will be expunged.  [Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 § 4006.]  The 9 month period for expungement of benefits when an EBT card is not used is effective starting in September, 2022.  [ACL 22-62.]

CDSS must verify death matches and give notice prior to expunging benefits because a household member has died.  This allows surviving household members to respond prior to expungement.  If all members of the household have died, CDSS must expunge all benefits. [Id.]

If the adult household members and Electronic Benefits Transfer cardholder dies and there are children in the home, the benefits remain on the account and the account remains active.  The household must choose a new head of household or the county will choose one for the household.  A new Electronic Benefits Card will be issued to the new head of household.  [Id.]

Federal rules prohibit charging recipients any fees for making CalFresh EBT purchases. [7 C.F.R. § 274.7(c)(1).] And they need not buy a certain amount at each transaction. [7 C.F.R. § 274.7(c)(1); MPP § 16-310.3.] After each purchase, the receipt indicates the benefit amount remaining for the month. [7 C.F.R. §§ 274.7(d)(3), 274.8(b)(7); MPP § 16-310.22.] Recipients may request a “transaction history” of all the food purchases made with their EBT card during the last two months via a toll-free telephone number [7 C.F.R. § 274.7(d)(1)-(2); MPP §§ 16-130.1 and 16-130.51.] (The toll-free number in California is (877) 328-9677.)

Needless to say, EBT systems must comply with the Americans with Disability Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq.. [7 C.F.R. § 274.8(b)(4)(i)(G); MPP § 16-003; Welf. & Inst. Code § 10072(d).] Authorized representatives are allowed to act on behalf of recipients who have a disability that prevents them from participating in an EBT environment. [MPP § 16-003; 57 Fed.Reg. 11218, 11220 (April 1, 1992) (Preamble to Final Regulations, Food Stamp Program Standards for Approval and Operation of Food Stamp Electronic Benefit Transfer Systems).]

The county must show recipients how to use the EBT system and give them a chance to practice. [7 C.F.R. § 274.2(e)(10); MPP § 16-601.1.] It must also give written instructions explaining how to use the system. [MPP § 16-601.2.] The written materials must be in simple language so that everyone can understand them. If recipients don’t speak English well and usually get notices from the CalFresh office in another language, they should get the EBT information in that language, too. [7 C.F.R. § 274.2(e)(10)(vi); MPP §§ 16-601.4, 16-601.41.]

The ebtEDGE application or online portal now allows people who receive CalWORKs and/or CalFresh benefits with an electronic benefits transfer card to manage their card in several different ways, including: freezing and unfreezing the card, resetting the PIN, blocking interstate transactions, blocking out of state transactions, requiring biometric identification to log in to the account, account services such as change password, update email address, and update challenge questions and answers, dispute transactions (not including lost or stolen cards and fraudulent transactions), view transaction history, and set language preference.  [ACIN I-50-23.]

Lost or stolen EBT cards or electronically stolen benefits

Lost or stolen cards should be reported immediately to the state’s designated 24-hour EBT telephone number. (The toll-free number in California is (877) 328-9677.) [See 7 C.F.R. § 274.2(e)(10)(v); Welf. & Inst. Code § 10072(f); MPP § 16-515.3.] Once reported, the county will cancel the card immediately, and must give the recipient a new card within two business days after the recipient reports the loss. [7 C.F.R. § 274.6(b); but see MPP § 16-517.1 (indicates county must provide replacement EBT card to the card holder within three business days following a cardholder’s request).]

Recipients can report possible electronic theft by contacting the EBT Customer Service Helpline or contacting the county.  [ACL 21-133.]  This includes skimming (benefits electronically stolen) and scamming (people tricked into giving out their password).  The report must occur within 10 days of the electronic theft.  [Id.]  Once the report is made, the recipient must complete the EBT 2259 report within 90 days of the electronic theft.  [Id.]  The recipient is not required to file a police report.  If the recipient does file a police report, they are not required to submit a copy of the police report. [Id.]

CalFresh benefits stolen electronically cannot be replace more than twice in six months.  [Id.]  The maximum replacement amount is one month of benefits.  [Id.]

The EBT vendor makes an initial decision about whether benefits should be replaced.  If the EBT vendor denies replacement, the county then looks at the case to determine if benefits should be replaced.  Counties can deny replacement when the available documentation indicates that the replacement request is fraudulent, or the request for replacement is not for electronic theft.  [Id.]

Changing PIN numbers

People can change the PIN number on their EBT card by calling the Automated Response Unit number on the back of the card, or by using the ebtEDGE app or online portal.  [ACL 24-25.]  People can also go to the county welfare department office in the county where benefits are issued and ask for a new PIN.  However, the county must either verify a photo id, or verify two pieces of personal information before changing the PIN number in person.  [Id.]

PIN changes at a county outside of cardholders residence are no longer be allowed.  [Id.] If there is a pending intercounty transfer, the county must issue a new card.  If benefits remain on the old card from the previous county, the new county must change the PIN number.  [Id.]