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Wal-Mart, Xerox blame each other for Louisiana shopping gone wild

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Xerox Corp blamed each other on Monday after Louisiana food stamp recipients stripped bare the shelves of some Walmart stores when a computer glitch left their debit cards with no limits.

Managers of Walmart stores in the small, north Louisiana towns of Springhill and Mansfield alerted police on Saturday night that throngs of shoppers had flooded into the stores and were buying groceries using electronic benefit cards that contained no credit limits.

EBT cards are debit-type cards issued under the state's food stamp program and coded to show the amount of money available for individuals to spend. Food stamps are a federal government subsidy program for low-income people that is administered by the states.

When word got out Saturday that the EBT cards were showing no limits, card holders rushed to area Walmarts to take advantage.

"Some people had eight or 10 shopping carts full of groceries," Springhill Police Chief Will Lynd said on Monday.

Xerox said on Saturday that its systems that process EBT transactions suffered an outage stemming from routine testing of backup generators that malfunctioned. Louisiana was one of 17 states affected by the outage.

Kayla Whiting, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters, pointed to Xerox as the source of the problem and referred further questions to Xerox.

Xerox corporate spokesman Bill McKee provided a written company statement saying that Xerox has a "documented process for retailers like Wal-Mart to follow in response to EBT outages."

But the statement left unclear who would cover the unauthorized spending, and it referred further questions to Walmart.

Louisiana officials said they had no intention of being left holding the bag. "The outage was the result of failures by our contractor, Xerox," said Trey Williams, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

He said emergency procedures in place with Xerox allow retailers to call a phone number and receive authorization for purchases any time the EBT system is down. "Some retailers chose not to follow the process," he said. "Those businesses are only being reimbursed for the (maximum) amounts on individual cards," he said.

Williams said that amounts transacted above the cards' available balances were returned to Wal-Mart marked "as insufficient funds."

He could not provide an estimate of the total amount of overspending or say who will cover it in the end. "That's a conversation between Xerox and the retailer," he said.

CARTS FULL OF GROCERIES

Springhill's Lynd arrived at his town's Walmart store at about 7 p.m. local time and found a few hundred shoppers jamming checkout lines with carts filled to overflowing.

Lynd said he told the manager that the store had a right to refuse service, but the manager said she had contacted Wal-Mart headquarters and was told to accept the cards.

The shoppers "decimated the grocery section of Walmart," Lynd said.

The shoppers broke no laws, Lynd said, adding that police intervention was not required to disperse the crowd. At about 9 p.m., Walmart said that the glitch had been fixed and the EBT cards were again showing appropriate spending limits.

"When they heard the announcement, people just left their carts in place and walked out of the store," Lynd said.

Mansfield Assistant Police Chief Gary Hobbs reported a similar scene in his community. He said that several other grocery stores in the area temporarily stopped accepting EBT cards when they became aware of the glitch, but Walmart continued.

(Reporting By Kathy Finn; Editing by Greg McCune and Steve Orlofsky)

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