Senator Ron Wyden on Thursday called for stricter federal security requirements for the benefit cards low-income families use to buy groceries as more households become victims of electronic theft.

Participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, receive funds for groceries on electronic benefit transfer cards. In recent months, thieves using concealed «skimming» devices have targeted an alarming number of SNAP participants.

While skimming isn’t unique to EBT cards, security measures like embedded microchips and contactless payments have combated it in the consumer credit and debit card industry. No state SNAP agency issues EBT chip cards, only cards with magnetic stripes, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“Criminals have been using a security weakness in benefit cards to literally steal food from families in need,” Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview. «This is a textbook case of government failure to help people who need it most.»

«This is a textbook case of government failure to help people who need it most.»

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

In a letter to the USDA first shared with NBC News, Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has worked to strengthen US cybersecurity, wrote that EBT card information stored on magnetic strips, technology that Dating back to the 1960s, it’s easy for criminals to clone.

The letter added that companies like Mastercard are phasing out magnetic stripes and urged the USDA to issue regulations requiring the same for EBT cards.

“State-issued SNAP cards are uniquely vulnerable to fraud because states have yet to adopt industry-standard security defenses,” Wyden’s letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Theft typically occurs when perpetrators attach devices to card-reading machines at cash registers. The devices are usually plastic keypad overlays that look almost identical to card reader terminals. (See a image of skimming overlays here.) Once the thieves have copied the information from the card, they use it to create fake cards and empty the accounts of SNAP participants.

The USDA has said it does not maintain a state-by-state list of claims. Some states have reported more than $1 million in stolen profits.

The theft can be devastating for SNAP households already struggling to make ends meet, especially since the vast majority of states have refused to reimburse victims.

A provision in the government spending omnibus bill passed in December allows states to restore stolen SNAP benefits using federal funds, but only those stolen over a certain period of time.

“The government can do much better here. It is obvious that SNAP users should get the same fraud protections that banks provide their customers,” Wyden said.

Senator Ron Wyden.  D-Ore., with reporters on Capitol Hill in February 2023.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.File Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wyden’s letter.

In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, the agency said it was working with state and federal partners and retailers to protect SNAP benefits, adding that it will be pilot a program that allows SNAP participants to make purchases using mobile payment technology that is more secure than magnetic stripes on cards.

The need for more secure EBT card technology is urgent, said Ashley Burnside, senior policy analyst at the Center for Social Policy and Law, a nonpartisan anti-poverty group.

“It is the people facing food insecurity who bear most of the cost, while in other cases, when the funds are stolen, it is the bank that bears the cost,” he said.

Travis Taylor, a cybersecurity expert who co-hosts a cybercrime podcast, said that «there is no silver bullet when it comes to security.» But microchips make cards much less vulnerable.

“The fact that they’re not being used for SNAP cards right now is a bit of a shame,” he said.

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