How Scammers Are Stealing Food Stamps From Struggling Americans

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.

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