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Shoppers Strip Shelves During EBT Glitch: Was It Theft?

Shoppers cleared shelves at two Louisiana Walmart stores over the weekend during an EBT glitch that prevented cards from displaying prescribed spending limits.

A random power outage seems to have triggered chaos in two Louisiana Walmart stores over the weekend: Xerox told CBS News that the outage occurred during a maintenance test. The two events at once were apparently just enough to throw the system for a loop.

Enter the chaos.

Some — not all — shoppers who receive food stamps through the Electronics Benefits Transfer (EBT) program decided to take advantage of the situation, during which set spending limits on the cards weren’t registering, by loading as much as they could carry into shopping carts. Police had to be called to help restore order. Not surprisingly, as soon as the glitch was corrected, people who were so quick to fill shopping carts with merchandise they knew their accounts didn’t entitle them to left the carts in the middle of aisles for employees to empty.

I’ve heard some suggest that Walmart should have immediately suspended all sales to EBT customers. To its credit, the retailer tracked all of the transactions, but stopped short of cutting access, reasoning that there were families in need who would do the right thing. Some actually did do the right thing, choosing to not take advantage of the system’s failure despite their financial hardship.

Those people should be rewarded. Don’t ask me how, considering the economic trouble we’re already having in Washington. If you have any good ideas, let me know.

But what about the people who knowingly rang up merchandise that crossed their limits? Isn’t that theft? Or isn’t it? They surely knew, if they’d had any history on the food stamp program at all, how much they could and couldn’t buy during a routine shopping trip. Because of that, if they loaded their carts well beyond that amount, how can it be anything other than a case of trying to cheat the system?

They couldn’t have believed it was some random “gift” from the government, considering it’s currently being run by a bunch of pig-headed morons who can’t even agree long enough to keep itself open for business.

But then they’re facing their own problems: among them, the need to eat despite the lack of enough money to actually put food on their family’s table. A kind of hardship that the majority of us who might easily point a finger of disdain in their direction have never really faced. To put it another way, it’s easy to be critical of “desperate” people when the critics themselves have never faced that level of desperation.

If the people who refused to “pull a fast one” during the glitch deserve a reward for doing the right thing, what about those who did the wrong thing? Suspend their benefits for a month? You’re potentially suspending the chance their families have to eat that month. Make them pay back the money? There was never “money” to begin with: a computer failure gave them a virtual blank check when there wasn’t the money in the account to begin with. Jail time? Who’s going to feed the families then?

Louisiana’s attorney general says it would be up to the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, which oversees the food stamp benefits. DCFS says the retailer — Walmart — is responsible for the overages, because it failed to get on the phone to determine the spending limit for each voucher manually, then sell merchandise accordingly. Because Walmart chose to allow the sales to go, apparently without attempting to establish proper limits that were temporarily lifted because of the glitch, it’s Walmart that will likely have to swallow the cost of the overages; as such, DCFS, told KSFA-TV in Shreveport, Louisiana, won’t prosecute the shoppers themselves since no “fraud” had been committed.

It would then be up to Walmart to try to recoup its losses from the shoppers themselves. Good luck with that one.

Your Turn:

What do you think? Should shoppers be responsible for the bills or should Walmart just have to absorb the cost? Do you punish those who knowingly took advantage of the glitch and if so, how?

22 Comments

  1. profkrg Agreed – a portion of upcoming months should be used to recoup the cost of the food they know they weren’t entitled to.

  2. Andi Roo ChristopherManee While I don’t think that Walmart should have to eat the cost incurred due to greedy people (it is what it is, after all) who willfully and knowingly obtained more groceries than they knew they were entitled to – Walmart is a large enough company that I think the idiocy that occurred in these two stores isn’t enough to cause anything to the employees.

  3. ChristopherManee Andi Roo I never suggested that the funding for these programs comes from walmart. However, it was suggested in the article, or in some of the comments, that walmart eat the loss since it was there error which allowed the catastrophe in the first place. And when walmart is forced to eat the cost for their error, you will see that trickle down unto the employees.

  4. Andi Roo ChristopherManee Cathryn (aka Strange) I am well aware of what’s covered. Lobster, for example. Steak too. I worked in a grocery store – I’m fully aware of it. In looking at the photos of the carts in the numerous articles I am certain that not all of the food in those carts was necessary for sustenance. In fact – the point I was trying to make was that if they bought so much food – $700 is a number from an article – then their future entitlement should be docked (to a point ) offset their greed/lack of integrity/abuse of the system because the system was busted. They plainly took advantage of it. No question about it. If the ATM at the bank is broken and is giving out extra money, no one would question whether it was bad to take advantage of it, but this is? Oh, right “think of the children” – the logic goes out the window in so many arguments when “the children” are involved. In any event – the issue is that if you bought so much food, unless you consume that much food in a month, then you should have it left over for the following month – etc. Unless, as I said, they gorge themselves on it, celebrating their bounty at the expense of Wal-Mart.

  5. Andi Roo ChristopherManee I suggest you look into where the funding comes from for these programs – it sure as hell isn’t WalMart.

  6. ChristopherManee Cathryn (aka Strange) As an individual who has utilized foodstamps, I resent the implication that a large grocery cart means that I would “squander & gorge”, or that my cart would be full of junk food. Are you aware that often times recipients are unable to purchase fresh fruits & veggies unless the particular grocery store in question has an arrangement with local farmers? Which means that moms using foodstamps are forced to purchase canned fruits & veggies… not the best, but still far from junk food! Maybe you should look into what kinds of items are covered by foodstamps — cuz it sure isn’t cookies and candy bars! I can tell you this firsthand.

  7. ChristopherManee Actually, it’s not “the rest of us” who are left footing the bill. It’s the walmart employees who pay for all shortages via low wages — which, ironically, is why most walmart employees are on the system. I can’t speak for walmart across the world, but I do know the ones in the Dayton, Ohio area will not grant full-time hours to their workers, but instead give them just under full-time hours, so that they don’t qualify for benefits and don’t have much time to get a second job.

  8. Were it any other retailer, I might have more sympathy. However, that company often forces its own employees onto welfare because of their low pay. Walmart can certainly afford to absorb the cost. Whether or not they should HAVE to is another question altogether. The softer side of me says that it’s not fair to the entity who is out the money. 
    The harder side says TOUGH. Here’s why: I’ve been that person in need, and the system sucks. Standing in line in front of rich assholes who sneer at my peanut butter and cheese, who sigh because I’m taking too long to check out… That sucks. The impatient, tired, rude cashier who isn’t paid enough to care but certainly has enough energy to make me feel like crap… That sucks. The welfare office where I have to waste a day of work filling out paperwork they already have copies of… That sucks. The other welfare applicants who obviously don’t give a crap about bettering themselves, and you can tell because they have five kids, each barefoot with a snotty nose, dirt encrusted in their belly buttons, and the moms — always mom, never dads — screaming at their babies to shut up… and knowing other people think I’m just like that because why else would I be sitting in the welfare office unless I was a worthless piece of crap continually pumping out babies… That sucks.
    You know what? I’m not saying it’s right, but I have to admit, if my card said I had a strange balance, I might consider taking advantage of it. Even knowing I might have to pay it back. Because being poor isn’t just about not being able to eat. Being poor is knowing that even if you CAN eat this week, if your car gets a flat tire, you’re screwed. Living with that kind of fear — fear of a simple, every day, normal event — that’s what it means to be poor. It also means looking down on yourself, because society looks down on you, because if you have a crappy, low-paying job, it’s obviously your own fault. If you didn’t go to college — if your parents couldn’t afford to send you to college, and you haven’t yet earned enough to pay for it yourself — that’s obviously your own fault, too. If you were born into a financially oppressed family, well clearly you deserve it. Being poor is not just about food. It’s a pervasive attitude of fear and hopelessness. So yeah, I probably would have loaded up my cart. Hunger, fear, and hopelessness make people different from who they’d rather be, who they might be under different circumstances. No one can judge those who live in hunger, fear, and hopelessness unless they’ve survived it themselves. 
    And none of that “I worked hard to get where I’m at” bullcrap. Because what you really mean is that you got out of bed every morning and put your pants on, drove to work, and did all the other things that normal American do. Congratulations. Poor people work hard, too. They get up in the morning, they put on their pants, they drive to work {or, just as often, hitch a ride or catch a bus}, and they do all this ON TOP OF feeling hungry, afraid, and hopeless. Being born into a family that can offer you college and connections is absolutely NOT the same thing as “working hard to get where I’m at”. That phrase is a cop-out and displays a lack of understanding for the plight of those less fortunate. It’s also an insult — as if to say that having money equates to hard work, and that a lack thereof equates to laziness. Quite often, it’s the exact opposite that’s true. Most of the poor people I know work at least two jobs, so even if they could afford college, they couldn’t find the time. Can people born into families who pay for their college say the same thing? Probably not. 
    Sorry for the rant, and for hijacking your comments. This one hit a little close to home. I promise I’m not a jerk in real life. I just have a huge heart for those in need. Your article was very understanding insofar as taking into consideration that forcing the “culprits” to pay back what they took would likely put the families in greater need and absolutely solve nothing while in actuality making things very much worse. I thank you for your compassion. I see some who commented are all about punishing the “thieves” — to them I would only say, “Live a year on foodstamps with NO SAFETY NET, and then tell me how easy it was to work yourself out of the situation without taking advantage of every crumb of an opportunity that passed your way.” Or, put more simply… walk a mile in another man’s shoes before you condemn his steps.

  9. I wonder how well it can be tracked. If it can be proven what they spent, I think it should be deducted from future benefits, but perhaps not all in one month. Like you wrote below, you can’t leave people without a way to put food on the table. At the same time, it’s disappointing to me how quick people were to take advantage of the system.

  10. ChristopherManee Cathryn (aka Strange) Where are you coming up with $700?  I didn’t see any dollar amount mentioned. 
    Of course they could bring back any unopened, non-perishables and have that amount applied toward what they owe.  That would be reasonable and is a good idea.  
    I suppose they could also have a small deduction taken for several months, as well, to make up for the excess paid out.  I simply meant that these people do not have the cash on hand to pay back that money and that it wouldn’t be reasonable to take it all at once from their next month’s allotment.
    As for your mention of junk food, I think that sounds like a presumption on your part.  I suppose you think that people on food stamps eat a lot of junk food? Why do you think that?

  11. BethZimmerman Definitely broken, especially when taking from future benefits could impact food on table for their kids. No easy answer.

  12. patricksplace At a minimum they need to have their future benefits pay for what they took. Aside from that … not sure! Broken system!

  13. Cathryn (aka Strange) I’d like to think that if they were getting $700 worth of food they weren’t entitled to that they wouldn’t squander it all and gorge themselves. If they’re notified that they’ll be paying back that good in some form or fashion then should ration it appropriately. And no one is desperate enough for $700 worth of good -that’s greed and lack of integrity plain and simple. They could be asked to pay it back – not entirely all at once – deduct it over a period of months so they can have the ability to purchase perishables (milk, cheese, etc). The non-perishables they acquired, well, they’ll just have to be more careful how they consume that junk food.

  14. patricksplace Community service that benefits the affected stores, 2-yrs probation and deduct over next 3 months. Seems reasonable.

  15. patricksplace Of course it was. Anytime you take something that you know isn’t rightfully yours…that is theft by definition.

  16. We can’t ask the people who took advantage to “pay back” the extra as that could result in innocent children going hungry.  That much is clear.  I’m not sure that there is anything that could be done, though.  
    I’d be curious to know how many people took advantage of this and how many refused to. I like to think that most people will do the right thing if given the chance but perhaps many of these people are so desperate that they took that chance.  
    I do know that people on food stamps have a hard time getting ahead.  It’s a Catch 22 situation, many times.  If they manage to earn a bit more money to try to get ahead, they get a bit less aid so they are stuck in the same situation unless they manage to get a job earning substantially more money – and how likely is that? There are certainly no easy answers.

  17. It’s the people who don’t have integrity – those who abuse the system  – ANY system – that ruin it for everyone else. These people knew better. Walmart should have imposed an arbitrary limit. And, they should have known that many people do not “do the right thing.” Anyone who deals with the public ought to know that it’s very hard to have hope for the good in people, haha.
    I’d like to see WalMart or whoever charge back the overage over the next several months. Otherwise, it is, indeed theft. And as per usual, the rest of us are left footing the bill (I don’t shop at WalMart, thankfully).

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.