Congress and States Must Do More to Address EBT Skimming

By Ashley Burnside

In the past year, states throughout the country have reported increasing instances of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) skimming. In this crime, thieves steal benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients – leaving families without the dollars they use to buy groceries and other essentials. Late last year, Congress included provisions in the year-end omnibus bill to address EBT skimming from SNAP recipients. This is a promising step, but we encourage federal and state lawmakers to do more. 

Recipients of SNAP food benefits and TANF cash assistance receive their monthly benefits through EBT cards. These cards work largely like debit cards, allowing users to withdraw their monthly TANF funds from ATMs and to make food purchases using card readers at grocery stores. But EBT cards don’t have the same technology, security, and legal protections that commercial credit and debit cards do, which puts EBT users at risk of falling victim to skimming crimes and with fewer legal protections when they do. 

Skimming happens when criminals place magnetic strips and hidden cameras on ATMs and card readers at stores to steal the data and PIN numbers from the cards. The criminals then access the account balance, duplicate the cards, and use them to make purchases, even if they live many states away. The practice is tricky and hard to catch. When commercial credit or debit cards are skimmed, users are legally protected, and they get their money back. But EBT users don’t get the same protections. 

Last year, most states were not replacing stolen benefits. Since benefits weren’t being reimbursed, families were left without funds to pay for food through no fault of their own. A few states, like California, have opted to reimburse stolen SNAP benefits to recipients who have fallen victim to skimming. Massachusetts advocates filed a lawsuit in 2022 on behalf of households whose benefits were stolen seeking restoration from state officials.  

The omnibus bill requires SNAP state agencies to replace stolen benefits with federal dollars and to provide the federal government a plan for how they will document and reimburse the stolen benefits. States may reimburse each household only up to two months of benefits up to two times per year and can only reimburse funds stolen in October 2022 or after, with an end date of September 30, 2024. The bill also requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue guidance and regulations directing state agencies to implement security measures to identify and reduce theft, as well as collect data on how benefits are being stolen across states, with the goal of recommending additional changes in the 2023 Farm Bill.  

While this is a good first step, lawmakers must do more to protect SNAP and TANF benefits from skimming in the long term and not treat EBT-card users as second-class consumers. Our policy recommendations include:  

  • States should promptly reimburse all recipients who have fallen victim to skimming, even beyond the scope of the omnibus bill. States should not make the process too burdensome for the recipient to prove. For example, requiring a police report to prove that skimming occurred places onerous burdens on the victim.  
  • States should collect data on when—and to what extent—EBT skimming is occurring. That data should be shared across states and used to implement security measures for EBT cards. 
  • Federal lawmakers should mandate that states reimburse skimmed funds on a permanent basis. In addition, federal lawmakers should require that EBT cards keep up with modern technology and security advances to similar levels as credit cards, including implementing chip technology. For example, EBT providers should notify SNAP recipients if their EBT card was used for a transaction in a different state, similar to what credit cards do in instances of potential fraud.