We’ve profiled two women in this space whose EPPICards — state-sanctioned debit cards from which users can access child support and alimony payments — were victims of fraudulent charges. In both cases, Affiliated Computer Services, or ACS, the company that oversees the EPPICard, refused to return money to the cardholders’ accounts until we asked. This month, we had to ask again. Twice.
The EPPICard is at it again.
One woman’s story
Allison Miller, who receives child support payments on an EPPICard, has been fighting with ACS about her account since September.
When she checked her balance that month, she was shocked to see only $95. Calls to customer service revealed two charges totaling $742.52. She didn’t recognize the charges.
Miller promptly completed the required fraud paperwork, but heard nothing. She called. ACS said the money was coming. Nothing. Finally, 55 days later (EPPICard states disputed charges will be returned in 10 days), $742.52 was credited to her account.
But 10 days later, another $771.10 was pulled from her account. More fraud? Nope. ACS determined the charges were not fraudulent and it reversed the credits.
“I just barely make it when unexpected things happen. But now what?” Miller said. “The kids need lunch money and we need food in the house.”
Miller was then told it was her responsibility to contact the merchants if she wanted to dispute the charges.
(Hold on: Bamboozled reported that EPPICard holders are subject to the same protections as regular credit cards. ACS apparently still has not clarified that to EPPICard reps.)
At her wit’s end, Miller contacted Bamboozled.
We called ACS, and within two days the money was restored to her account.
“It’s a shame that this company is able to get away with giving people the runaround,” said Miller, who has since dropped the card in favor of direct deposit of her payments.
“I tried calling several agencies and departments at the state level and no one can help you there either. They tell you that it’s a separate company, but someone from the state hired this company,” she said.
Sure did. More on the state’s role later.
Beyond New Jersey
As Bamboozled was looking into Miller’s case, we were contacted by Stephanee Brooke Golightly, a resident of Tulsa, Okla., who receives unemployment benefits on an EPPICard.
She told a similar tale: In October, her account was shy $908, plus $6 in service fees, for three charges at merchants more than 1,000 miles from her home. When the charges were made, she wasn’t even in Oklahoma.
She, too, filed fraud paperwork, her account was credited, and days later, the credits were reversed.
Golightly went as far as filing a police report, and contacted the corporate headquarters of the chains where the charges were made. Both said, based on video surveillance, the perpetrator was a white male in his 20s.
“Given that I was out of state and had not only airline tickets, but charges made by me on my card while there, you’d think this would warrant some kind of actual investigation, but no,” said Golightly, a white woman in her 40s.
Despite that evidence, ACS reps told her she’d have to contact the merchants directly.
Bamboozled contacted ACS, and within days the missing funds were restored to her account.
She, too, has switched to direct deposit.
“They obviously need to step up their security before states withdraw their business,” she said.
Ah, yes, the states.
Bamboozled went back to Suzanne Esterman, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Human Services Division of Family Development, the agency that contracts for the EPPICard.
We learned in our last story that the ACS contract for child support benefits services expires next month, and we had requested the state negotiate a better deal — and lower fees — for the more than 72,000 child support recipients who use the card.
How’s that going?
“We always seek to negotiate the most advantageous rates for the clients who benefit from these services,” she said. “Clearly it’s become an issue that we’ll address moving forward.”
“We will address this as soon as we are contractually able to,” Esterman said.
The contract. Yes. The contract.
We’ve asked New Jersey to tell us, via the Open Public Records Act, exactly how much was paid to ACS under the contract last year.
We’ve also asked how much ACS was paid for all its New Jersey contracts, which include benefits transfer services for Medicaid managed-care programs, billing for the insurance surcharge system for the Motor Vehicle Commission, and more.
All these contracts give the state significant bargaining power. New Jersey can apply pressure, dangling its many child support customers, and now, the paycheck ACS receives for its other state services, as leverage for lower fees.
Surely, New Jersey, you can do something. Open up the contracts — all the ACS contracts — to new bidders. There have to be some vendors out there wanting to get involved.
ACS provides EPPICard-like services to 15 other states. For comparison, New Jersey should see which of those states has a better deal, as does Mississippi.
You can even turn to the federal government. It offers a government benefits card called Direct Express, which is also administered by ACS. The National Consumer Law Center, in a commentary that slams excessive fees on cards like the EPPICard, praises Direct Express because its fees are reasonable.
We asked ACS about these fraud cases, and how the company investigates fraud in general.
Spokesman Ken Ericson said while he can’t discuss individual accounts, the company’s anti-fraud measures are “industry standard and guided by federal regulations.”
“Because the techniques used by ACS to protect cardholders are proprietary, we are unable to discuss them in detail,” he said.
We asked, once again, about the reps who are apparently still telling fraud victims to contact the merchants directly.
“Our documented procedures do not require cardholders to contact merchants directly when we investigate suspected cases of fraud,” Ericson said. “However, during the process of collecting information from cardholders, they may be asked if contact with a merchant has been initiated. This process helps us better assess the situation and enables us to help cardholders more efficiently.”
Efficiently? Seriously? Come on.