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Link card fraud worth the fight?

Former Homewood supermarket cashier Cecilia LoCicero recalls seeing shoppers using state Link cards to buy steaks and lobsters, a shopper who fumbled for his second or third card when the first one had no money on it and other customers who took cash back from the cards to buy cigarettes or alcohol.

The Link cards are “abused so much, you just don’t know,” she said.

As state lawmakers mull a plan to study abuse in the food assistance program known as Illinois Link, some say putting users’ photos on the debit card needlessly invades privacy while failing to curb larger abuses. Others believe the program is hobbled by abuse.

The blue plastic Link card works as a debit card that only pays for food and non-alcoholic beverages for qualifying low-income households. It is not supposed to provide cash back after a purchase.

But the card is also used for payments from the separate Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers the program. That program has fewer restrictions than food stamps, and recipients can get cash back.

The state says less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Illinois Link cardholders have lost benefits in the last year because of fraud, or about 786 recipients among 860,000 cardholders statewide.

Spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus said complaints fielded through a department website are funneled to the inspector general of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. OIG has a hotline and website for consumers and cashiers to report suspicions of Link fraud, department spokesman Mike Claffey said.

And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that runs the food assistance program, runs data searches to look for suspicious activity, such as individual purchases of the same product month after month, he said. Investigators who suspected retailers were involved in a scam referred 257 cases to prosecutors in 2009.

The Illinois House voted 78-34 this week to approve a bill to study the costs of putting photographs of authorized users on Link cards, an effort billed as reducing fraud. But Link card users disagreed on whether the photos would cut down on fraud or whether the photos constituted an invasion of privacy.

Outside an Aldi store in Alsip, Annie Andlinger recalled feeling “like crap’’ when she was forced to use the card after a son died of cancer and she had a newborn daughter. “Everybody knows when you pull out that card,’’ she said. Still, she thought putting the photos on the cards “would make it harder for fraud.”

While shopping at El Ranchito Market in Blue Island, Shelly Adkins, 35, said she receives $243 a month through Link to feed three children. She was offended the state would consider requiring photos.

“How bad can the fraud be? You use it to buy groceries. Food. That’s it,’’ she said.

El Ranchito Market manager Ricardo Barres said he hasn’t seen any shoppers abusing the Link card.

But many current cashiers — who asked to remain anonymous — said in interviews that they suspect they’ve witnessed fraud, including a cardholder who uses cash given back to buy lottery tickets and another shopper who fills carts with cases of pop, then pays for each cart with a different Link card. The cashiers, who work at different stores, can’t say for sure they witnessed fraud because state officials said while it’s illegal for a person to have more than one card, it is OK for Link card holders to give their cards and pin numbers to someone else to do their shopping.

Former cardholder Tom Ellement also suspected fraud: he recalls witnessing a shopper use the card to pay for two orders, followed by an exchange of bills with another customer.

“That’s a way to get money even if you don’t have a cash account,” he said.

Contributing: Steve Metsch

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