Card skimming is costing Americans millions, Washington’s EBT cards most vulnerable

SEATTLE — “Well, something told me to check it, and it was on my phone, and it said that I had $600 in my account. And then two seconds later, my phone refreshed right on its own. And it’s like $19,” said Jennifer Shore from Olympia.

Just like that, Shore said she became the victim of a card skimmer who took all but a few bucks from her account.

I was just like, what is going on? I was really confused. I was really upset. I cried for like a week,” Shore said.

Skimming is quick and costly. In a single swipe fraudster can wipe out your account. Alissa from South King County has been hit twice.

“It happened last year and then it happened again just a few weeks ago. Yeah, I was left with $1.84,” she said.

Skimmers are a device placed over a point-of-sale machine. They collect the data on the magnetic strips, effectively skimming the account. Cards you swipe, without chips, like EBT cards, are most vulnerable to these skimmers.

One solution is a skimmer detector, like this small battery-operated device called ‘Hunter Cat.’

For $45 its inventors said it can detect the number of magnetic stripe heads inside the card reader.

Chris Hanson, a Network Intrusion Forensic Analyst for the U.S. Secret Service can’t say for certain if a detector will detect every type of skimmer. He said that devices like ‘Hunter Cat’, and the web-based apps we found do have a shelf life.

Our sister station in Atlanta spoke to that region’s Secret Service Agent-In-Charge Steven Baisel, who said the product does have some merit.

“The device will work on a limited number of the credit card slots, but not everything. And that’s basically because of the technology,” said Baisel. “There’s like a window of time when it’s effective and then the bad guys adapt to the detection and they use some different technology to circumvent that and avoid detection, or they change up their way of deploying things.”

We took the device to gas stations in King and Snohomish Counties, to see how it works. You place the device in the slot and if the light turns green you’re good, red means there may be a problem.

The Secret Service has seen the technology adapt and change over the years. Some skimmers are undetectable as they are placed inside gas pumps. These are called inline skimmers and use Bluetooth.

Debit card skimming increased more than 79% from 2021 to 2022, according to the financial company FICO. And 70% of fraud cases in America are tied to skimmers in five states: California, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Washington.

Those bad swipes become killer financial blows for people like Jennifer or Alissa, who are both on public assistance.

“It’s been a struggle, we have had friends reach out and help us. But, you know, it hasn’t been easy. And I’m not the only one,” said Alissa who said she had her benefits skimmed two times now.

In our state, EBT benefits have been particularly easy to skim because they lack a chip. All the data is stored on the magnetic strip and this makes EBT cards particularly vulnerable to fraud.

Babs Roberts is with DSHS. She said 2,500 clients have lost $1.6 million in benefits due to skimming fraud, between April 2022 and October 2023.

I think the impact on the clients is most difficult to deal with because it is totally not their fault that this is happening,” said Roberts.

One solution for EBT would be including a chip, which automatically makes the card harder to skim said Director of Fraud and Security at Javelin Strategy and Research, Tracy Kitten.

“With the advent of the chip, which could be a tap-and-go payment or where you actually insert the card into the card reader, and it prevents the ability to capture those card details from the magnetic stripe as it’s being swiped in the terminal,” said Kitten.

Washington currently has $500K SNAP cases and there are 3 million active cards. But the cost of protection may exceed the losses. Our research puts the cost of chip cards at between $2 to $3.50. The price of security would be $6m-$10.5 million, not including transaction fees. The losses are much less at $1.6 million over just an 18-month period.

The answer may lie in California. After reimbursing nearly $20 million in stolen benefits over the past two years, the Golden State will spend $50 million to develop and implement a chip and tap technology, plus a mobile App by Summer 2024.

Babs Roberts with DSHS said Washington State hopes to follow those footsteps.

“And if they’re able to maybe frontload some of that programming costs with some of the national vendors that we can take advantage of, we want to do that as well. There is hope,” said Roberts.

There are ways to protect yourself from skimming, even if you don’t have a ‘Hunter Cat’ handy.

  • Check your Bluetooth at the gas pump to see if you get a strong signal. It could be data heading from the pump to the thief.
  • Point-of-sale skimmers are bulky, give those scanners in the checkout line a good shake before using them.
  • Pay more attention at self-checkouts where card readers are unmanned.
  • If the numbers seem mushy, that could reveal a problem.
  • Always use your hand to cover your pin.

According to the Secret Service, the safest way to pay now is the tap-to-pay method.