Five Ways State Agencies Can Support EBT Users at Risk of ‘Skimming’

By Ashley Burnside 

People eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) use Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to purchase food and other essentials. EBT cards work like debit cards when making purchases at stores. Recipients can also use ATMs to withdraw funds from their TANF cash assistance account.  

Unfortunately, there have been increasing reports across different states, including California, Maryland, and Massachusetts, among others, of people who use EBT cards falling victim to card ‘skimming’ schemes. Skimming is when criminals place magnetic strips and hidden cameras on ATMs and card readers at retail outlets to collect the data from the card and the person’s PIN number. This allows the thief to duplicate and use the stolen card, even if they don’t have the original card. 

Skimming is a crime that’s inconvenient and frustrating, regardless of who falls victim to it. But it is even more detrimental for people receiving SNAP and TANF who are living in poverty. They rely on their monthly benefits to access necessities like food and diapers, as well as to cover transportation costs. For parents, losing money through skimming means they will lack critical financial support to care for their families, through no fault of their own. 

EBT cards are not subject to the same legal protections as credit cards and debit cards. While state agencies that oversee SNAP and TANF can’t prevent criminals from using skimming devices, agencies can support people enrolled in public benefit programs. Here are five recommended actions for state agencies: 

1. Alert people enrolled in TANF and SNAP about the risk of skimming. State agencies can create text message alerts, webpages, and flyers alerting TANF and SNAP recipients about the risk of their EBT card being skimmed. Agencies should create these resources in easy-to-understand language; develop them in multiple languages; and provide images of what skimming devices may look like. These resources can help people avoid falling victim to skimming schemes by providing tips, such as checking ATMs for devices before using them and frequently changing their PIN. The resources would also help them know what to do if their card is skimmed.

Some states are already taking this action. An example of a flyer alerting people of this threat from New York can be found here. A webpage from Massachusetts explaining what skimming is can be found here.

2. Avoid messaging that places the blame on recipients of the public benefit program. Any resource or correspondence from state agencies to people after they have fallen victim to skimming should not blame them for the incident. Materials should not suggest that victims have been irresponsible or that they must have provided their PIN to someone else. Skimming is a tricky practice that can catch anyone. People who use public benefits are not at fault if they are targets of this crime. Messaging matters: using accusatory language will only stigmatize the person reporting the crime and make people less trustful of the state agency.

3. Look for patterns in EBT card activity that could be early indicators of fraud. For example, some states have identified repeated attempts from out of state to withdraw funds from accounts with zero balances. The state agencies should contact the EBT holder promptly and explain that they may have been the victim of skimming. The agency should also describe what actions (such as changing their PIN) a person can take to protect themselves and their money.

4. Reimburse people for their lost benefits. Victims of skimming lost their benefits through no fault of their own. States should restore the stolen benefits. In the SNAP program, states can’t use federal funds to replace benefits unless the loss was due to a “system error,” but states could use their own funds. For TANF benefits, states could use either TANF block grant funds or state funds. Nothing in TANF federal law or regulations prevents states from reimbursing recipients who are victims of theft. Doing so will ensure families don’t have to go without food, gas money, or their rent for the month.

The District of Columbia successfully reimbursed TANF recipients who fell victim to a system hack that resulted in their losing their monthly benefit. Other states should follow D.C.’s lead.

5. Promptly replace skimmed EBT cards so people can continue accessing their benefits. An individual may have an EBT card that provides both their monthly TANF and SNAP benefits. Invalidating an EBT card means cutting off that family from multiple streams of monthly funds—and potentially adding cumbersome paperwork if they need to get a new EBT card. In most cases, it should be sufficient to change the PIN and not replace the card. When needed, state agencies should replace any skimmed EBT cards as promptly as possible, including allowing people to pick up replacement cards rather than waiting for them to be mailed. The state agency should not require the cardholder to submit additional, duplicative paperwork and should waive any fee for replacing the EBT card. 

CLASP encourages all state agencies to follow these recommendations to ensure that people enrolled in TANF and SNAP are protected from skimming. These efforts can help them secure the money they need to afford food and other essentials.