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Scripps News survey finds $70M stolen from food assistance program

Forty-six states reported, in an exclusive Scripps News survey, $70,655,962 stolen from recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Scripps News survey finds $70M stolen from food assistance program
Posted at 10:32 AM, Dec 14, 2023

Before Burnes Garrison goes to her local grocery store, she plans. She has a strict budget and a set of criteria: Is it shelf-stable? Does it freeze well? Is it healthy?

“Buy your chicken, your beef, you know, your fish and then your vegetables,” she said. “Stuff like that, you know, trying to keep healthy." 

The food she buys usually lasts for a month; she tries to buy in bulk to support her family. In 2012, she became the guardian of her grandkids, who moved into her Baltimore home after their mother passed away.

With more mouths to suddenly feed and on a fixed income, Garrison turned to the federal government for food assistance.  

“[My] Grandson ... eat like a man working two jobs, you know, and the food stamps SNAP program helps a lot,” she said.

Since 1939, the federal government has helped millions of Americans buy food. Today, the program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP for short. It’s funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and more than 20 million low-income households – including Burnes Garrison – receive a monthly stipend to help put food on the table. 

But when Garrison was checking out at her neighborhood market with her grandson earlier this year, something unexpected happened when she tried to pay: Her card with SNAP benefits on it was declined.

“A young man behind the counter said, ‘There's nothing on your card,’” she said. But it was Feb. 11, and Garrison always got her benefits on the 10th of each month.  

“I just checked this last night to prepare for the day and it was $360 on this card,” she said. 

She was forced to return the meat and vegetables she was planning to buy to the store shelves. When she got home, she called the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, the local department that administers her benefits. An official confirmed her account was empty and they said her food benefits had been used at a Target in Minneapolis. 

“Minneapolis, Minnesota? I live in Baltimore,” she said. “I don't know anybody in Minneapolis.” A Scripps News investigation found Garrison is one of thousands of SNAP recipients from across the country whose food benefits have been electronically stolen. 

To get a sense of the scale of this ongoing crime, Scripps News reporters sent surveys to agencies in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. We found at least 106,000 cases of stolen food benefits across 46 states, costing taxpayers more than $70 million. 

“It's awful. It's horrible. I don't understand why they're doing it,” said Garrison.

An easy target

When Garrison signed up for SNAP benefits in 2012, she received an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. The card functions like a debit card: Money is loaded onto her card each month that, with a swipe, she can use to buy eligible food items at certain stores. 

But these EBT cards are what make SNAP benefits an easy target for thieves. Unlike most modern credit and debit cards that have microchip and “card-tapping” capabilities, EBT cards still rely on a magnetic strip and a PIN. It’s this archaic payment mechanism that leaves these cards vulnerable to skimming devices that criminals place on top of card readers. Whenever someone swipes their card, the skimming device captures their card information. It’s a security flaw that is robbing taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars. 

“There's all these security features in the private credit card and debit card sector that just don't exist with EBT cards,” said Michelle Salomon Madaio, the director of economic justice for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services for low-income persons. “When folks go to the department to find out why is there nothing on my card, they're told sometimes that 'Oh, well, in the middle of the night the entire balance was withdrawn' ... other families have been told 'Oh well, there was a purchase in California and New York.'”

How thieves are doing it

Scripps News saw just how easy it is for these skimming devices to be installed. We obtained surveillance footage of criminals walking into grocery and convenience stores and planting skimming devices on top of card readers in checkout lanes. 

“It fits perfectly and matches to the device that's there in the store,” said Commander John Haines, head of the criminal investigation division of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. “Just looking at it, you wouldn't be able to tell that anything is different. It literally takes seconds to put on.”

Haines said thieves then either sell the stolen data or use it to make fake cards which can be used to buy items eligible for SNAP purchases.

“That's what the plan is. As soon as the money hits the account, spend it as quickly as possible,” said Haines. 

Across the country, law enforcement officials are playing whack-a-mole with card skimmers. Haines said incidents of theft come and go like waves. 

“Last year, we had a wave that came, literally we could see it coming up from Florida, coming all the way up the East Coast,” he said. “We recovered a little over a dozen devices in a 30-day time period last year. And then right after us, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, all had the exact same thing happen. We do believe it was one group of people who clearly were organized in what they're doing.”

Haines said they haven’t made any arrests in that case because these types of cases are hard to solve. The devices themselves don’t have any clues that tell law enforcement who placed it and when. By the time someone reports it to the police, the criminal is long gone with the data. 

Scripps News also learned possessing a skimming device isn’t illegal in D.C. Haines explained it’s illegal to capture information using a skimming device, but it’s not against the law to own the device. Our own analysis found that, like D.C., 28 states do not have laws that specifically make it illegal to possess a skimming device. 

“If I had it here in my pocket and you stop me, there's no crime you can charge me with,” Haines said. “It's kind of a loophole in the law that I know we're looking at trying to work with our legislators here and see if maybe that's something that we can plug up so the actual placing of it and the possession of it to be illegal.”

But some investigations have been successful. In March, law enforcement arrested 15 individuals, some who were Romanian nationals, for allegedly stealing benefits in California. Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department confiscated $129,000 and 429 fake cards. 

Just a state over, Arizona law enforcement seized more than 1,200 fake SNAP cards and more than 3,200 cans of baby formula bought using stolen benefits. According to the state attorney general’s office, “more than 2,700 individual victims lost over $1.2 million in stolen SNAP benefits.”

“Law enforcement is being overwhelmed with this,” said Haywood Talcove, the CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions Government Division. His team started to analyze stolen SNAP benefits in October of 2022. “There are thousands of these going on a day across the country, right? They don't have the resources, nor do they have the technical capability.”

Talcove says SNAP cards should have microchips, but he also wants the USDA to implement two-factor authentication, so users can stop their benefits from being spent across state lines.

“You need to add on some tools like multi-factor authentication to say: Is this really you? Did you really mean to go ahead and do this?” he said. 

A spokesperson for the USDA said in a statement that the agency does not tolerate fraud and officials work closely with “state and federal partners, law enforcement, SNAP retailers, EBT processors, and other industry experts to protect SNAP benefits.”  

In March, the USDA launched a partnership with five states to test “mobile contactless payments” in the food program. SNAP recipients in Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri and Oklahoma will be able to tap or scan their phones to pay for food, instead of swiping their card. USDA did not say if this advanced payment mechanism will be rolled out nationwide. 

The spokesperson added that state administrators have the option to adopt chip-enabled cards and the USDA will “provide technical assistance” and “support” to them. 

Last year, Congress passed a bill to reimburse victims of stolen SNAP benefits, like Garrison. But the funding only applies to benefits stolen between Oct. 1, 2022, and Sept. 30, 2024.

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger from Maryland hopes his bill will change that. He told us our reporting led him to introduce legislation to provide permanent funding for reimbursements and beef up security for the SNAP program. 

“What this is doing is lining the pockets of criminals and hurting, you know, all of these people who are in a less-fortunate situation, and that's inexcusable,” he said. “It needs to be done because in the end that’s the only way you’re going to stop it.”

In the meantime, what kind of security features are available depends on where SNAP recipients live. States have contracts with third-party companies that process EBT payments and provide different levels of security. For example, in Wisconsin and Arizona, SNAP recipients can use a mobile app to request a temporary deactivation of their cards and block out-of-state or online purchases. But no state currently offers microchip technology. 

There are other steps SNAP recipients can take to protect themselves, such as avoiding using a simple PIN like 1111. 

“First, do not use a small retailer to get your provisions. Use a big retailer. They have much better security,” Talcove said. “The second thing that you should do is when you're using your card, even at the bigger retailers, put your hand over it when you're entering in the PIN number. The third thing that you should do is change your PIN number every month.”

But advocates like Madaio say it doesn’t matter if this is a state or federal issue: The bottom line is that people are being harmed. 

“We've worked with families who have not been able to pay their rent, get an eviction notice, families who can't afford to pay the utility bill. It's very costly,” she said.

'You'll survive'

Losing her benefits meant Garrison didn’t pay her phone and cable bills that month. And she could only afford to pay half of her electric and gas bill. 

“I was like, OK, you’ll survive, you’ll survive, but you don't know how devastating it can be,” said Garrison. “You have a budget. You know this is going to happen. We're going to go to the market. We're going to do this. We're going to do that. And then all of a sudden it just disappears. It does something to you.”

Some states, like Maryland, have their own state-funded reimbursement programs. In response to our national survey, 39 states said they had already reimbursed some 70,000 thefts a total of $52.9 million using a combination of state and federal funds.

Two months after her benefits were taken, Garrison was notified by the state of Maryland the money that was stolen was going to be replaced. 

But the financial toll doesn’t compare to the emotional one. The most important thing to Garrison was to make sure her grandson was fed.  

“I don't want him to worry about things that he shouldn't have to worry about. He should be worried about going to school, getting an education and planning for the future,” she said, teary-eyed. “I don't need him to be at school worrying about whether he’s going to have something to eat or not when he comes home.”

But it’s not just SNAP benefits that are being targeted. Scripps News learned other federal assistance programs that disburse benefits on EBT cards, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), are also being stolen. TANF are cash benefits that can be withdrawn from an ATM.

“I woke up on the third, I’m pregnant, went to call my card and found out that my benefits were swiped,” said Courtney Obee, a Baltimore resident whose TANF benefits were withdrawn in Miami, two hours after they were deposited into her account. “They took $1,300, $1,320 to be exact.” 

For Erika Johnson, a mom of five who also lives in Baltimore, it happened a day later. Her account activity shows someone spent her $460 in SNAP benefits at a BJ’s in Tampa and withdrew $1,110 at a Tampa Target store.

“Florida? I’ve never even been to Florida personally myself, so I’m not understanding how it happened,” said Johnson. “It’s a hurtful feeling. I made promises to my kids and others I was unable to keep, so it’s hard.”

At the time, these women were denied reimbursements, and Johnson felt she was being treated differently because she received federal assistance benefits. "I feel like we should be protected as if this was the Bank of America or Wells Fargo or something like that. I feel like we should be protected just as they are,” she said. 

Michelle Salomon Madaio, director of economic justice at the Homeless Persons Representation Project, says that by not prioritizing these families, the U.S. has a “second-class consumer system.” Certain protections under federal law require banks to reimburse customers for unauthorized fraudulent transactions, but no such law exists for federal assistance benefits.

“The majority of recipients in this program are children; there's a high percentage of people living with disabilities. So, I think if we as a society truly saw people as deserving of food and cash assistance, we would have the same level of response that we do when the same crime happens to someone who holds a credit card,” said Madaio.

If you've had your SNAP benefits stolen, email the reporters on this story: Karen.rodriguez@scripps.com and mallory.sofastaii@wmar.com


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