How Scammers Are Stealing Money From Food Stamps Recipients

Something was very wrong with Jackie Kirks’s food stamp card.

While standing at the checkout line in a cavernous Albertsons grocery store in Long Beach, Calif., last December, Ms. Kirks was told that she didn’t have enough money in her account to pay for food.

“That’s impossible,” she told the cashier.

Ms. Kirks, 70, knew that she had saved up a sizable sum in monthly benefits from the federal food assistance program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Until September, she had been homeless, bouncing between weeklong stays at motels and sleeping in her car. To eat, she would buy food through a state program that permitted adults 60 and older, people with disabilities and homeless people to buy discount meals using their food stamps. The program had cost far less than buying groceries, so most of the SNAP money had accumulated in her account.

But the cashier at Albertsons was adamant: Ms. Kirks had only $6 in her account. Alarm bells rang in her head as she walked out of the supermarket, empty-handed except for a bottle of water and coffee creamer. She immediately called the state agency that oversaw food benefits. Her heart sank when a caseworker explained that someone had gained access to her card and drained her balance of over $4,000.

People like Ms. Kirks who rely on public benefits, such as food stamps, are facing a relentless threat: Scammers are using illegally installed skimming devices to lift payment card data from unsuspecting victims who swipe their payment cards through the devices in stores or at A.T.M.s. The criminals then use the information to create fake payment cards and steal money from victims’ accounts.

Skimming schemes started spiking in prevalence around 2022. Thieves target a variety of card-based payments, including those made with credit and debit cards. Welfare programs that use payment cards are similarly vulnerable. Yet, unlike credit and debit cards issued by banks, benefit cards issued by public agencies don’t come with fraud protection, which limits a credit or debit cardholder’s liability for unauthorized charges.

The schemes have hit two welfare programs particularly hard: food stamps, which are payments to low-income families that can be used only to buy groceries, and cash assistance, which is a no-strings-attached sum. Both are monthly programs and are transferred to participants through a payment card known as an “electronic benefit transfer,” or E.B.T.

E.B.T. cards, unlike debit and credit cards, use basic payment technology, bearing just a magnetic stripe that contains an account number. By comparison, most credit and debit cards issued by banks now have chips, which function as tiny computers that use encryption to protect account information.

State agencies that administer benefits haven’t adopted chip technology, in part, because no federal law requires it. Not only are chip cards more costly than magnetic-stripe cards, but transitioning a multibillion-dollar benefit program to a new payment structure can be logistically challenging, advocates said.

“The lack of equal security for people with credit cards and people with E.B.T. cards is disgraceful,” said Andrew Kazakes, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, which provides legal services and advocacy for the city’s residents. “It’s embarrassing that this inequity has persisted.”

The gulf between industry-standard payment safeguards and outdated E.B.T. technology has left E.B.T. users vulnerable to digital theft. Here’s how it works: Thieves covertly slip card readers known as skimming devices inside card readers at A.T.M.s or atop point-of-sale systems in stores. When a card is swiped through, the skimming device can read and store the account information in its magnetic stripe. Skimming devices are used in conjunction with hidden video cameras, which capture PIN codes associated with accounts.

Skimming devices can be installed in seconds. Security camera footage has caught thieves snapping card skimmers over card readers and A.T.M. interfaces, typically when cashiers are distracted or bank vestibules are empty.

Once E.B.T. card information is recorded, it can be encoded onto any card with a magnetic stripe. The duplicated card can be used for groceries or cash, depending on the card that was cloned. Scammers can determine the amount of food stamps stored on an E.B.T. by calling a state’s benefit hotline and can withdraw cash benefits at any A.T.M.

This comes at a significant cost, not only to benefit recipients but also to the public. According to the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program, the federal government has spent at least $30 million reimbursing stolen benefits in the past year.

After she was skimmed, Ms. Kirks went 10 days without buying groceries. One of her favorite foods are the croissants from Whole Foods, which remind her of Paris, where she immigrated from in the 1990s. But after her food stamps were stolen, she couldn’t buy them, nor could she get any of her other staples.

Eventually, Ms. Kirks was partly reimbursed for the stolen money, receiving around $580. Federal law caps the amount that skimming victims can get to two months’ worth of benefits. While she waited for the reimbursement, Ms. Kirks lived off leftovers and pantry items, as well as occasional meals from the local Meals on Wheels program.

Other victims have had to eat canned food for days, visit food banks, skip meals or borrow money.

Jeanneth Chavez is a mother of two who receives cash assistance through her E.B.T. card. She is a longtime resident of Los Angeles, but in the spring of 2022, around $1,100 was stolen from her benefits in a transaction recorded as taking place in New York.

When she discovered that the money was missing, Ms. Chavez immediately began to worry about being evicted. She gets her benefits on the second day of every month, and her landlord requires rent payment within the first three days. She raced to the local public services office, hoping to address the issue, only to discover there was a long line of other women dealing with the exact same crisis.

“It was very devastating,” Ms. Chavez recalled. They were all given instructions for how to file for reimbursement, but there was nothing else that could be done in the short term. “The only other resources that they had for us was that, in the case of eviction, they were giving out little pamphlets to halfway houses for women and children,” she said.

Ms. Chavez ended up working out a deal with her landlord, agreeing to pay an extra $100 in a late payment fee. To get diapers for her daughter, she went to a dollar store with her father, who bought them for her. The poor quality of the cheap diapers gave her baby a diaper rash. Ms. Chavez was skimmed two more times that year. Now, every month, she stays up late on the day her benefits are deposited, making sure to change her PIN at exactly midnight to throw off any potential scammers who may have gotten her card information.

“Only then am I able to rest. Only then am I able to get a good night’s sleep,” Ms. Chavez said. “I get anxiety in the days leading up to me receiving the funds. I don’t want to find myself in that predicament because I have little people that depend on me. How do I look at my baby in her face and know that I might not have funds for her diapers?”

The federal reimbursement program for food stamps is slated to end in the fall, leaving little recourse for skimming victims. When Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, which funded reimbursements, the law required the restoration of benefits stolen only through Sept. 30, 2024. There is currently no federal plan to extend reimbursements beyond that date.

Some states are taking their own actions to protect welfare recipients. California and Oklahoma are slated to pilot E.B.T. chip cards this summer, which advocates hope will help safeguard benefits. While food stamps and cash aid are federally funded programs, states have significant leeway in how they administer them.

Last year, Maryland passed a law that expanded reimbursements for stolen food stamps and cash assistance, even if they meant drawing from state funds — a model that some advocates hope other states will adopt.

“It feels like states think that just by depositing the benefit on a card, we did our job,” said Michelle Salomon Madaio, a senior attorney at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. “If you’re not able to deposit it on a card in a way that ensures the family who’s eligible for the benefit can actually access the benefit, then it’s as if they never got the benefit to begin with.”

As for Ms. Kirks, back in Long Beach, the experience of being skimmed out of $4,000 continues to make her feel exposed. In the past, she would buy food for the homeless people in her neighborhood. Having experienced homelessness herself, she knew what it was like to depend on the good will of others. “That’s how I was raised,” she said.

She doesn’t do that as much anymore. Instead, she tries to use her SNAP card as little as possible, never knowing when her info may be stolen again. She doesn’t like to be so pessimistic and suspicious, but she doesn’t feel like she has a choice. “To be cautious of everybody,” she said, “it’s not a way of living.”

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