Bamboozled: A big headache returns

Looks like there’s good news coming for New Jersey EPPICard users.BB branding

But first, more fraud.

That’s right, dear consumers, the fraud department at EPPICard is hard at work again.

We’ve written about quite a few cases of questionable investigations by Affiliated Computer Services, or ACS, the company that manages the EPPICard benefit card for New Jersey and 15 other states.

This time, meet Candace Villalobos of Katy, Texas, a town west of Houston. She receives child support on an EPPICard. The cards are state-sanctioned debit cards through which users can access money from child support and alimony payments.

Villalobos was Christmas shopping in December 2009 when a purchase was declined for insufficient funds. When she called to check her balance, it was a mere $19.

Apparently, a thief using her account number had charged $236 at CVS, $20 at a gas station, $216 at Sears and $20 at a convenience store. Nearly $500 was gone.

42710Villalobos called ACS, canceled the account number and filed a fraud claim. She also filed a police report. She contacted CVS and the clerk remembered the fraudulent purchaser, gave Villalobos a description of the man and offered a videotape of the illegal transaction to police.

The CVS manager reversed the $236 in charges to her account.

$256 to go.

But not easily. A week later, Villalobos received a letter from EPPICard denying her fraud request.

“After a thorough investigation and analysis of the information you provided and our internal record, we can not confirm an error occurred and are respectfully denying your request,’’ the denial said.

Villalobos called EPPICard for further explanation, and she told the rep there was even a police report. The rep took another look and said the claim was entered into the computer using the wrong code. She’d send Villalobos a new set of paperwork to complete with the correct coding.

On March 3, ACS received Villalobos’ second fraud claim and within a few days, she received another denial, super speedy this time. It was also dated March 3.

“I would like to know just how much ‘investigating and analyzing’ EPPICard did in less than a day’s time to come to the conclusion that no fraud had been committed,’’ Villalobos said. “If they received my paperwork on the 3rd and denied it on the 3rd, did they really look into my case? I feel like I’m getting the runaround.’’

She called ACS again. This time, the rep told her she’d have to contact the merchants directly to get a refund. (Here we go again: With each EPPICard fraud story we’ve reported, cardholders have been told to contact the merchants, but Bamboozled has been told by ACS that reps are not supposed to tell that to cardholders. Seems the practice is ongoing.)

“I’m sure EPPICard figures if they keep denying my claim I will drop it and they won’t have to pay out,’’ Villalobos said. “I knew that there had to be other people going through what I am, so I started looking on the Internet and that’s when I came across Bamboozled.’’

We called ACS and requested that it review Villalobos’ case.

After a few days, Villalobos got several calls from the company. A voicemail from a fraud department supervisor, Villalobos said, explained her claim was denied because the account had been frozen and the disputed transactions had not fully processed. Then in a phone conversation, a rep explained the claim was denied because EPPICard needed more information and a copy of the police report, Villalobos said. Then Villalobos was told the company never received her paperwork.

Those are a lot of different explanations. Villalobos said she didn’t understand why there were so many different “reasons,” and why during all of her calls to the company when the fraud first occurred no one told her paperwork was missing or incomplete.

Villalobos faxed a statement with a list of the fraudulent transactions the next morning at 6:11 a.m. At 6:30 a.m., the missing $256 was back in her account.

She’s glad to have her money back, but she’s still frustrated.

“I am still bothered by the fact that every person I talked to at EPPICard gave me a different story on the status of my claim and how to resolve it,’’ Villalobos said. “It makes me wonder how long this would have dragged out had I not contacted you.’’

We asked ACS about this case, and why Villalobos was told to contact the merchants directly, and we didn’t exactly get a direct answer.

“The systems and policies we have in place are guided by federal regulation and are designed to help cardholders through the process,’’ said spokesman Ken Ericson.

Ericson said federal regulations require it complete investigations in a certain time frame, 45 days in most cases. After that time, he said, the claim “may be closed as denied if we do not have enough information to reasonably make a determination of whether it is a valid claim.’’

So to meet a deadline, ACS is closing cases that haven’t necessarily been fully investigated? That reasoning doesn’t make sense in this case: Villalobos received her first fraud denial in only a week. ACS had about 37 more days to investigate or request more information before it needed to close the investigation.

So now let’s leave Texas and head back to New Jersey, where EPPICard fraud victims have heard similar “explanations” from ACS.

We’ve complained to the state about fraud, but also that New Jersey EPPICard fees are higher than what’s found in EPPICard contracts with other states. We’ve repeatedly asked the state to use its clout (and its other contracts with ACS) to negotiate a better deal. Maybe it’s working.

“We are negotiating better terms in future contracts, including addressing fees and calls about cases of fraud,’’ said Treasury spokesman Andrew Pratt.

We’re thrilled to hear it’s moving in the right direction. We’ll let you know when we have news.