Originally created 03/03/98

ATMs give out welfare benefits



Clarice Lynch really could have used the money -- but the system just wouldn't cooperate.

She tried the new personal identification number. She tried the old PIN. But the automated teller machine wouldn't accept her card.

Instead of calling the bank to complain, she'll be calling the government.

The 19-year-old Richmond County woman was one of a handful of people who got tangled in the electronic tape of a new program that allows welfare recipients in a dozen Georgia counties to withdraw their benefits from bank cash machines rather than waiting for a check.

Beginning Thursday, the same cards will be used at grocery stores instead of food stamps. Eventually, Social Security recipients will use similar cards.

The goal is to cut down on paperwork, avoid fraud and help prevent the theft of benefit checks or food stamps from mail boxes. It also will allow many people their first opportunity to maintain a bank account.

Overall, social workers pronounced the move into the electronic age a success on Monday, its second day.

"So far, it seems to be going really well," said Linda Joesbury, director of the Columbia County Department of Family and Children's Services. "They said that out of 12 counties, $2 million have been accessed. Two million dollars in a day and a half -- that's a lot of money."

There were a few bobbles. Some cards were eaten by bank machines and card holders will have to contact the Department of Family and Children's Services to get them back, bank workers said.

If cards had accidentally been demagnetized or if card holders didn't pull off an instruction sticker on the front of the cards, making them catch in the machines, they may have lost them.

"We have had some captures," said Beverly Peltier of the SunTrust bank branch on Walton Way, which Monday had the highest volume of bank-machine use the branch had ever seen.

"We've contacted the local Department of Family and Children's Services office so they can come pick up the cards," she said.

Some cards may not be immediately available because some branches contract with other financial institutions, such as Wells Fargo, to run the bank machines, said workers at SunTrust and First Union banks.

That means the contracted company will have to retrieve the cards from inside the machine and send them to the bank before the bank can return them.

Other people had problems because they hadn't called a number to activate the card or because they had forgotten or changed their PIN. Ms. Lynch asked to have her number changed after someone opened her mail and saw her original PIN, she said.

"I called and asked to have it changed, but it's still not working," she said in frustration. "I tried the new number, and I tried the first number.... Yesterday, it did the same thing."

Volunteers and social workers staked out many area banks, offering help to those who were tentative about using the machines.

At SunTrust on Gordon Highway, Minnie Lamb and Bernardo Palmer hung back to allow first-time users a chance to study the instructions before moving in to ask those who were confused if everything was working out.

Late Monday afternoon, they calculated they had helped more than 70 people and had watched scores more use the machine without trouble.

Stephanie Greene approached the machine confidently but made no bones about the fact that she needed help.

Brandishing her red-white-and-blue transaction card, she pleaded, "You guys, please show me what I'm doing with this thing."

For a minute, it didn't seem like it would work. The automated teller machine whirred, then stopped, whirred, then stopped again. Bystanders eyed it expectantly as it finally spit out some bills.

"Well, that's easy," the 21-year-old Richmond County woman said, counting out the money. "I've had a checking account before, but I didn't know if this card would be the same. I was afraid I'd have to do something different."

Help line

Anyone having a problem with their electronic benefit transfer card should call a toll-free hot line at (888) GA1-EBT1 (421-3281).