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Stealing from low-income people using food stamps and other benefits on the rise

Card being used for electronic purchase.
Blake Wisz
Card being used for purchase with electronic reader.

Thieves in Oregon and elsewhere are using skimmers and other methods to steal from people’s Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. These cards are used for SNAP (food stamps) and TANF (financial assistance) by struggling families and individuals.

Robbing from the poor

It’s perhaps the cruelest form of theft, stealing from those desperately in need of food and money. But it’s on the rise.

Jake Sunderland of the Oregon Department of Human Services said last year, his agency approved 1,267 replacement requests for stolen EBT benefits, amounting to a total of $399,465.

For people using EBT cards, Sunderland shared this advice.

“Always freeze your card after each use so that the benefits can’t be accessed without your authorization,” he told KLCC. “(It's) also a good idea to block purchases from being made outside of Oregon or purchases from being made online, unless you're specifically doing that right then, and then to re-block them.”

Sunderland said Oregon and other states began seeing EBT theft increase starting in 2020.

The ODHS says benefits stolen electronically should be reported within 30 days so that they can be replaced.

Theft goes high-tech

Thieves place skimmer devices inside or on top of existing card readers in stores. Made of plastic and circuitry, these devices are often overlays or inserts. They can then record card information include PINs after the victim swipes it through.

Theft-device for magnetic stripe cards
Eugene Police Department
A skimmer device found by Eugene Police last year. The plastic overlay resembles an ordinary keypad (right) but underneath conceals circuitry that stores information that criminals use to commit theft.

Often, the thief won’t retrieve the skimmer device until the victim has long left the scene, making detection difficult until the target tries to make a new purchase or check their balance. And some skimmer devices also transmit that data to thieves via Bluetooth.

Stolen card information can be used to make fake cards (a process called cloning) or unauthorized transactions.

Phishing, on the other hand, is when thieves deceive people into clicking on links that look genuine but are actually to third-party websites or portals that ask for the card numbers and PIN. That information is then used to spend or deplete the victim’s available funds.

Authorities say if you’re at a card reader or ATM, to examine it for ill-fitting overlays or sections that look mismatched compared to the rest of the machine. It’s also advised to cover the buttons you push on the reader or ATM as some thieves will even use hidden cameras to record PINs.

"Keep your PIN secret,” added Sunderland. “No one at the (ODHS) or anyone else should be asking what your PIN is. Keep an eye on your accounts, to just make sure the purchases going through are ones you recognize and made.”

If a purchase or transaction isn’t recognizable, users are advised to cancel their EBT card immediately. And stolen benefits can be reported to a local ODHS self-sufficiency office, or online at ODHS.gov.

Copyright 2024, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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