EBT Glitch Causes Customers To Raid Louisiana Walmarts; Shopping Spree Worse Than “Any Black Friday,” Local Police Reports

A system meant to make food shopping easier for those receiving federal aid went down this past weekend.

By John Ericson on October 14, 2013 6:53 PM EDT

Paulo Ordoveza, CC BY 2.0
Paulo Ordoveza, CC BY 2.0

Saturday shopping at two Louisiana Walmart locations jumped up a notch when a computer glitch erased the spending limit on all Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, causing shoppers to clean out the shelves and converge on the registers with overflowing carts. Although the glitch only lasted for a couple of hours, local authorities were called in to help maintain order and quell frenzied customers scrambling for a week's worth of free lunch.

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The EBT system, which is intended to facilitate shopping for people who receive federal aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), allows enrollees to pay for their groceries with a special debit card. This way, food stamp recipients are able to keep all their federal benefits in one account. Usually, it works just fine. 

But on Saturday, the system was turned on its head by a brief power outage during a routine maintenance test. At the Walmart stores in Springfield and Mansfield, La., a resulting computer glitch suddenly prevented registers from recognizing account balances and spending limits. What ensued was an experience "worse than any black Friday," Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd told local media.

When Walmart employees notified the store's corporate headquarters, they were reportedly told to keep the registers ringing. But once customers began to notice the fortuitous glitch, the situation escalated quickly. "We did make the decision to continue to accept EBT cards during the outage so that they could get food for their families," Walmart representative Kayla Whaling told reporters, adding that the company was "fully engaged and monitoring the situation and transactions during the outage."

That said, consumer cellphone videos show the two stores in total disarray, with overflowing shopping baskets and carts littering the otherwise empty aisles. When the spending limits came back online at around 9 p.m., local police were there to help employees maintain order and sort out transactions. One woman was detained for ringing up a $700 bill with a balance of $0.49. However, corporate representatives said the company would not press charges as long as she left the food.

According to local news station KSLA-12, Walmart continued to monitor food purchases throughout the outage. In addition, a notice posted on the Louisiana Department of Children and Family (DCSF) indicated that all suspicious transactions will be subject to thorough investigation: "While transactional systems maintained by DCFS contractors may have been impacted by today's outage, the systems that DCFS uses to track EBT card usage and identify fraud were still in place. DCFS vigorously investigates all fraud claims."

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