As “skimming” increases, senator urges USDA to require updated SNAP card technology

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

Participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, receive grocery funds on electronic benefit transfer cards. 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 combat it in the consumer credit and debit card industry. No state SNAP agency issues EBT chip cards, only magnetic stripe cards, according to the USDA.

“Criminals have used a security weakness in benefits cards to literally steal food from families in need,” Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview. “This is a textbook case of government failure to help the people who need it most.”

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

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

In a letter to the USDA first shared with NBC News, Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has worked to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity, wrote that EBT card information stored on magnetic tape, a technology that dates back to 1960s – is easy for criminals to clone.

The letter added that companies like Mastercard are phasing out magnetic strips and urged the USDA to issue regulations requiring the same for EBT cards.

“State-issued SNAP cards are uniquely vulnerable to fraud because states have not yet adopted industry-standard security protections,” Wyden’s letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

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

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

Skimming could be devastating for SNAP households already struggling to make ends meet, especially because the vast majority of states have refused to reimburse victims.

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

“The government can do a lot better here. It is clear that SNAP consumers should receive the same protection against fraud that banks provide to their customers,” Wyden said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.Kevin Deitch/Getty Images file

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

In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, the agency said it is working with state and federal partners and retailers to protect SNAP benefits, adding that it will pilot a program that allows SNAP participants to make purchases using mobile technology payments that is more secure than magnetic strips on cards.

The need for more secure EBT card technology is urgent, said Ashley Burnside, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonpartisan anti-poverty group.

“People who are facing food insecurity bear the brunt of the cost, while in other cases where the funds are stolen, it is the bank that bears the cost,” she said.

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

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

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