Hackers discreetly steal SNAP benefits

One Riverdale resident was a victim of two separate hacks at local Key Food


One Riverdale resident is one of many SNAP recipients who have reported that the cards they use to access the funds were hacked. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is supposed to provide food assistance to low-income city families, seniors and people with disabilities, but those benefits are instead sometimes being stolen by criminal hackers.

Jay Mattison, a retired dog walker, learned that lesson the hard way. Mattison was initially hesitant about getting government benefits, but relented after his sister and brother-in-law persuaded him that he had earned them. The only place he used his SNAP card for about two years was the Key Food near his home on Riverdale Avenue in North Riverdale.

Mattison is supposed to have money added to his card electronically on the same day every month, but that didn’t happen last November. “I went to use it on the 11th, and it showed up that I didn’t have any money on the card,” he recounted. “So I first assumed maybe it could have been a day late, but I still should’ve had that $28.30. When the next day came and I went back to Key Food, they said, ‘You have no money on the card.’ At that point it became apparent the money had been swiped.”

Mattison called the number on the back of his card, and was informed that his account had been hacked, and that four purchases, ranging from $33 to $99 and totaling $319, had been made at a minimart in the East Bronx.

It  became apparent to Mattison that this was a common crime, because when he called the SNAP helpline, a message advised callers who’d been hacked to call a separate number. When he did, anther message said that those who had had their money electronically taken could call the attorney general’s office or the police. He decided to do neither, not wanting to overburden the 50th Precinct.

When Mattison received a new card in December, his first step was to create a new PIN, with the hope of  deterring another hack. He made his last purchase on Jan. 5, and had a remaining balance of $18. When he tried to use his card on Jan. 11, however, he found history repeating itself, and saw only zeros. This time, someone posing as Mattison had made two purchases in Brooklyn totaling $309. He hadn’t been in Brooklyn in 30 years, he said.

He couldn’t understand how the hackers could access his money almost the moment it was added to his card, including the money carried over from the prior month. Mattison, who owns a flip phone, said that he never buys anything online, has no Facebook account and does no online banking.

“They know the money is coming on at 12:01 a.m., obviously,” he said. “So I mean, unless I find a place to shop at 12:05 a.m. and spend it all, it’s all gone.”

One possible way the money is being stolen is known as skimming. Criminals sometimes illegally install an undetectable device on an ATM that records bank account data when users insert their cards. According to the NYPD, criminals can then encode the stolen data onto a blank card and use it to “loot” customers’ bank accounts.

The Key Food on Riverdale Avenue is the only place he uses his card, Mattison said. Since he doesn’t have a car, it’s the most convenient place for him to shop.

He was careful not to point fingers at the store or its employees, but told The Press that once, when he swiped his card there, it was unusually slow and didn’t register smoothly. Another time, when he typed in his PIN, the numbers didn’t show up.

Mattison also said he ran into a friend at the store who had had the same thing happen to him a week before Mattison’s card was hacked the first time. And a Key Food employee told him that her benefits were scammed twice, he said, and that the only place she used them was at that store and one other.

A manager at Key Food confirmed that several customers had claimed that their benefits were hacked. While the store awaits a promised security system upgrade, it has added a silver slip on the card reader as a way of determining whether it has been tampered with.

“You would think, with all the people who get the SNAP benefits — the millions of people — that whoever it is that’s doing this would probably say, ‘Listen, let’s not pick on somebody too often,’” Mattison said. “Because eventually they’re going to do something about it. In other words, if you did it once to me, I might have said, ‘OK, forget it.’ Now you did it twice to me; would they attempt a third time? That’s the question I’m going to find out.”

Fortunately for Mattison, there was no third hack on Feb. 11. That may have been the result of a new strategy he employed when he got his new card. This time he didn’t activate it in advance, which would give potential thieves more time. He was happy to have his money safe, so far, but said he hoped something would be done about the problem.

“It’s a shame to have to say I’m happy they didn’t steal my money this month,” he said. “They shouldn’t be stealing at all.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Social Services said more than 61,000 submitted a claim of electronic benefit transfer fraud, Gothamist reported. They have helped recover more than $19 million.

hacking, Key Food, SNAP, Jay Mattison, ATM, skimming, 50th Precinct, keypad overlay