Food Stamps: Fraud and Theft Are on the Rise — How Can You Prevent Them?

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Fraud and theft involving food stamps have become so rampant in recent months that some recipients want to hold government agencies legally responsible when benefits are stolen. Among the complaints is that the food assistance program doesn’t have enough safeguards in place to prevent fraud.

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A class-action lawsuit was recently filed against the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance — the agency that oversees the state’s food-stamp program — because it wouldn’t reimburse fraud victims for stolen benefits, CBS News reported.

One plaintiff in the case was the victim of “skimming,” in which the thief uses a device to steal the card number and PIN off of someone else’s electronic benefits payment card.

EBT cards are used to pay for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The cards are designed to work like debit cards. However, they don’t have the same built-in protections you will find with bank-issued debit or credit cards.

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A rise in skimming and other scams involving SNAP benefits has raised questions about who should be held responsible for stolen benefits — the victims, or the state agencies that administer the federal program. For now, victims are taking the financial hit, according to the lawsuit, which was filed by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

“[Skimming] extends across the country,” MLRI attorney Betsy Gwin told CBS News. “The difference we see is the lack of federal protections for EBT users.”

Skimming is just one of the ways SNAP beneficiaries have benefits stolen. Another popular scam is phishing, in which criminals send fraudulent messages that look like they’re coming from a reputable source. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP at the federal level, said criminals are posing as SNAP case workers to try to obtain recipients’ EBT card information.

In October, the USDA issued a warning about skimming and phishing scams. It also offered the following tips on what you can do to avoid theft and fraud:

  • Keep your PIN secret. Don’t share it with anyone outside your household, and cover the keypad when you enter your PIN on a machine. You also should change your PIN frequently.
  • Check your EBT account regularly for unauthorized charges. If you notice any unfamiliar charges, change your PIN immediately to stop the thief from making any new purchases.
  • Double-check card reading machines. Make sure there’s nothing suspicious overlaid or attached to the card swiper or the keypad. Overlays can be difficult to detect but are often bigger than the original machine and might also hide parts of the machine.
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If you believe you’ve been the victim of a skimming or phishing scam, contact your local SNAP office immediately. You also can report SNAP fraud by state on the USDA’s fraud page.

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Meanwhile, take the time to research your state’s refund policy, Forbes advised. If you live in a state that covers stolen benefits, you’ll need to follow its directions for reporting theft. For example, in California beneficiaries can report stolen EBT cards to the EBT customer service helpline, file a police report and fill out a theft report.

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About the Author

Vance Cariaga is a London-based writer, editor and journalist who previously held staff positions at Investor’s Business Daily, The Charlotte Business Journal and The Charlotte Observer. His work also appeared in Charlotte Magazine, Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal and Business North Carolina magazine. He holds a B.A. in English from Appalachian State University and studied journalism at the University of South Carolina. His reporting earned awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the Green Eyeshade Awards and AlterNet. In addition to journalism, he has worked in banking, accounting and restaurant management. A native of North Carolina who also writes fiction, Vance’s short story, “Saint Christopher,” placed second in the 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. Two of his short stories appear in With One Eye on the Cows, an anthology published by Ad Hoc Fiction in 2019. His debut novel, Voodoo Hideaway, was published in 2021 by Atmosphere Press.
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