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With ‘skimming’ on the rise, senator urges USDA to require updated technology for SNAP cards

Sen. Ron Wyden on Thursday called for stricter federal security requirements for the benefits cards that low-income families use to buy food as more households fall victim to electronic theft.

Participants of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, receive money for groceries on an electronic benefits transfer card. In recent months, thieves using hidden “skimming” devices have targeted an alarming number of SNAP participants.

While skimming is not unique to EBT cards, security measures such as embedded microchips and contactless payments have combated it in the consumer credit card and debit card industry. According to the US Department of Agriculture, no state SNAP agency issues EBT cards with chips, only cards with magnetic stripes.

“Criminals are exploiting a security weakness in benefit cards to steal food from families in need,” Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview. “This is a textbook case of the government’s failure to help those who need it most.”

“This is a textbook case of the government’s failure to help those who need it most.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

In a letter to the USDA shared for the first time with NBC News, Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has worked to strengthen US cybersecurity, wrote that EBT card information stored on magnetic stripes — The technology – which dates back to the 1960s – made it easy for criminals to be cloned.

The letter noted that companies such as Mastercard are phasing out magnetic stripes, and it urged the USDA to issue the necessary regulations for EBT cards.

“State-issued SNAP cards are uniquely vulnerable to fraud because states have yet to adopt industry-standard security protections,” Wyden’s letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Skimming usually occurs when criminals plant devices on card-swiping machines at cash registers. The devices are usually plastic keypad overlays that look almost identical to card reader terminals. (See a photo of the skimming overlay here.) Once thieves copy the card information, they use it to create counterfeit cards and drain SNAP participants’ accounts.

The USDA has said that it does not maintain a state-by-state list of claims. Some states have reported over $1 million in stolen benefits.

Skimming can be devastating to SNAP families already struggling to make ends meet, especially because most states refuse to reimburse victims.

A provision in the government’s omnibus spending bill passed in December allows states to restore skimmed SNAP benefits using federal funds, but only those stolen during a certain time frame.

“The government can do much better here. It’s clear that SNAP users should have the same protection from fraud that banks provide to their customers,” Wyden said.

Sen. Ron Wyden.  D'Ore with reporters at the Capitol in February 2023.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images File

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding Wyden’s letter.

In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, the agency said it was working with state and federal partners and retailers to protect SNAP benefits, adding that it would administer a program that provides mobile payment technology to SNAP participants. Allows purchases to be made using the more secure magnetic stripe on the card.

More secure EBT card technology is urgently needed, said Ashley Burnside, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonpartisan anti-poverty group.

“It is the people who are facing food insecurity who are bearing the brunt of the cost versus in other cases when money is stolen, it is the bank that is bearing the cost,” she said.

Travis Taylor, a cybersecurity expert who co-hosts a cybercrime podcast, said that “there is no silver bullet when it comes to security.” But microchips make the cards much less sensitive.

“The fact that they’re not being used for SNAP cards right now is a bit of a shame,” he said.



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