A U.S. senator from Oregon introduced a bill Thursday that would dramatically increase the security of the benefits cards that low-income families use to buy groceries.

The bill comes amid a startling number of thefts from participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, whose electronic benefits transfer cards contain data on a magnetic stripe that is easy for criminals to clone using hidden “skimming” devices. The thieves produce duplicate cards that they use to drain victims’ SNAP funds.

Skimming is not unique to SNAP EBT cards, but embedded microchips and other features, such as contactless payments, have long combated this form of electronic robbery in consumer credit and debit cards.

No states currently issue chip-enabled SNAP EBT cards, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees SNAP, a program formerly known as food stamps. Some, such as California, are in the planning stages of transitioning to chip cards. 

The bipartisan, bicameral bill, shared first with NBC News, was introduced by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. If passed, it would direct the USDA to issue updated cybersecurity regulations for all SNAP EBT cards for the first time since 2010, requiring them to have microchips.

“Families right now are as vulnerable as ever, having their SNAP benefits stolen by crooks,” Wyden said in a phone interview before the bill’s introduction. “This is just unacceptable for 2024 in America.”

Liliya Kondratyuk, a day care teacher and single mother who lives in Lynn, Massachusetts, had her SNAP benefits skimmed just before Thanksgiving in 2022. She learned her funds had been stolen while trying to pay for groceries at the supermarket — and discovered that more than $750 had been wiped out, leaving less than a dollar in her account, she said.

Liliya Kondratyuk.
Liliya Kondratyuk.Courtesy Liliya Kondratyuk

“It crushed me,” Kondratyuk said, adding that she had about $200 worth of food in her cart when her card got declined. “I was just kind of embarrassed.”

Kondratyuk eventually got reimbursed from the state for the stolen funds, but she said the theft caused her financial challenges for months. She feels Thursday’s bill is urgently needed so families — including her own — won’t have to go through the same experience.

“I just don’t want to have that worry in the back of my head always,” she said. “Is it going to happen all over again?”

SNAP skimming has proliferated in recent years. In late 2022, Congress authorized states to use federal funds to reimburse victims of SNAP skimming in certain circumstances through September 2024. Millions of dollars worth of stolen SNAP funds have since been reinstated, but Wyden said that has only provided a partial solution.

“That’s useful, but it just doesn’t tackle the root of the problem,” he said. “The root of the problem is lackluster security for SNAP cards.” 

Thursday’s bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and John Fetterman, D-Pa. 

“SNAP is supposed to help the person who is food insecure,” Cassidy said in a statement to NBC News. “It is not supposed to help crooks who steal these benefits. This fights the crooks while preserving the benefits for those most in need.”

Fetterman echoed that, saying in a statement that it was “despicable that thieves are targeting vulnerable hungry families with cyber-crime scams.”

The House companion bill is led by Reps. Andy Kim, D-N.J., and Mike Lawler, R-N.Y.

Wyden said he hopes the bill will pass as part of the Farm Bill, a sweeping piece of legislation that is up for renewal later this year and reauthorizes federal programs such as SNAP. His bill calls for states to begin issuing chip-enabled EBT cards within two years.

“If I had it my way, it would have happened yesterday,” Wyden said. “There are nuts and bolts issues with respect to technology that have to be implemented.”

Anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocacy organizations endorsed the bill, including the nonprofit Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which has fought for reimbursement for skimming victims in its state. 

Vicky Negus, policy advocate at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, praised the bill for supporting SNAP participants beyond just adding chip technology to EBT cards. The bill would also require the USDA to issue updated anti-fraud technology regulations every five years so SNAP keeps pace with the security of credit and debit cards. Additionally, it would require states to issue a replacement card within three days if an EBT card is stolen or cloned by fraudsters.

“The goal here is to make sure that everybody has equitable protection in the checkout line — period,” Negus said.

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