Crime rings target EBT cards, say police

Authorities arrested 10 immigrants from Romania and Italy on charges of “skimming” EBT cards to steal SNAP and welfare benefits from California recipients, a crime that has increased in the past couple of years and occurs nationwide. Since June 2022, more than $181 million in EBT benefits were stolen in California, mostly by unauthorized ATM withdrawals, said the Secret Service.

“EBT fraud literally takes food out of the mouths of children,” said Tara McGrath, U.S. attorney in San Diego. “Parents who don’t know they’ve been targeted get to the grocery checkout and discover their EBT cards have been wiped clean.”

The suspects arrested in San Diego and Oakland were members of “one or more criminal enterprises” that install skimmers on point of sale terminals and ATMs to capture information from EBT cards, said the Secret Service. The information is loaded onto a “clone” card that is used to access benefits. In the past couple of years, authorities in California have arrested groups of Romanians on charges of skimming EBT benefits.

Thieves have targeted EBT debit cards lacking chip technology. No states issue SNAP cards with chips, reported NBC News in early March.

Companion bills in the Senate and House would require SNAP cards to carry anti-fraud technology capable of resisting cloning. Magnetic-stripe cards would be phased out and replaced with chip-only cards. Anti-hunger groups endorsed the legislation.

“There’s no excuse for this two-tier system, where families in need are stuck with outdated, easily hackable technology while folks with credit and ATM cards are better protected,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who was among the sponsors of the bill. Rep. Mike Lawler, a New York Republican who also sponsored the bill, “This legislation will go a long way to ensuring that those who need this assistance are the ones receiving it, not the fraudsters who prey on our most vulnerable.”

Under a 2022 law, states are required to replace SNAP benefits stolen by card skimming, cloning and similar methods, said the USDA. Preliminary data indicated $30 million in benefits were replaced in 44 states. However, USDA said reporting periods varied by state and its recently created dashboard “does not yet indicate clear trends.”

SNAP participants should change their PINs frequently and be aware of common schemes to learn PINs or card numbers. “Change your PIN at least once a month, right before your benefit issuance date,” said the USDA.

Early this year, authorities in Orange County, California, arrested four dozen suspects in an EBT card cloning scheme. “This is an organized crime ring coming through Romania,” said District Attorney Todd Spitzer. In a related case, the FBI said Florin Duduianu, 39, who illegally entered the United States from Romania, was the leader of card-skimming ring, reported City News Service.

USDA data say 41.2 million people received food stamps at latest count, with an average benefit of $194 per person per month. In late 2023, benefits cost roughly $7.9 billion a month.