TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Call for Action investigation uncovers more than one million dollars of taxpayer money spent on ATM fees. It's part of an in-depth investigation into how people receiving cash assistance, or welfare, are using taxpayer money.
It's called the "Temporary Cash Assistance" program, but you probably know it better by it's nickname, "welfare." Needy families in the state of Florida receive about $250 a month on an electronic benefit card. It's used just like a debit card; you can make purchases, use it as an ATM machine, or even rack up an ATM fee. Our investigation found that not everyone receiving these cards is as good at avoiding ATM and it's costing you.
We uncovered more than a million dollars that is supposed to help needy families going to banks in the form of ATM fees. Nearly 100,000 Floridians receive a stipend of about $250 a month on an electronic benefit or EBT card. So we wanted to know how those cards are being used.
We asked for two months of data from the Florida Department of Children and Families to see how people on the program were using their EBT cards. We found more than 65,000 transactions at ATM machines in September 2010.
Bank of America charges a two dollar fee and we found 5,706 transactions there in the month of September. Chase bank raked in 3,889 ATM transactions, Wells Fargo had 3,019, and there were 1,378 transactions at SunTrust. But we also found thousands of transactions at independent ATMs, the ones that sometimes charge even higher fees of three, four and even five dollars. For instance, there were 4,670 transactions at Cardtronic ATMs and 3,139 at ATM Express machines.
After spending weeks going through thousands of transactions we had lots of questions. So we drove to Tallahassee to talk with the administrator of the program at the Department of Children and Families to get some answers.
One of our first questions was who ends up paying for those ATM fees when someone goes and uses an ATM that charges five dollars?
"Well it depends how you define it. Obviously it's ultimately taxpayer money that is going to an individual and then it's their money," Joe Follick answered.
Follick, from the Department of Children and Families, told us it's up to the individual banks or businesses to decide whether or not to charge families fees. Some places like Publix wave the fee, while others do not.
We then asked Follick if he thought 65,000 ATM transactions a month, that cost two dollars each, or $120,000 dollars a month in ATM fees, was acceptable?
He said, "Our research and our review of the numbers show most people, and it makes sense anecdotally, if i am only receiving $230 a month I am going to work very diligently to avoid paying those fees."
We found that statement partially true. At Publix where they wave the fee had the most withdrawals, there were 16, 372 transactions made at their store ATMs.
But we found at Walmart, where people could go in and buy one item and get cash back with no charge, there were 1,916 withdrawals at the ATM that does charge a fee.
Follick says the families may have good reason for racking up those charges.
"Maybe I am more fortunate than someone else who may need to go to an ATM that is close to their house or close to their business and it turns out it is worth $2.50 rather than find some place that is not. I think that most people who receive benefits try to maximize those benefits for themselves and their families," he explains.
Follick also told us only 100,000 people in the state of Florida use this program and the million dollars spent on ATM fees is a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the state budget.
Not all EBT cards can be used to withdrawal money. Some EBT cards only store food stamps which is part of a separate program.