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Romanian crime ring in San Diego targets EBT debit cards

May 13, 2023

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SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Secret Service is investigating a Romanian crime ring in Southern California targeting debit cards issued by the state for food and welfare benefits.

The victims’ money is stolen when using California debit cards without chips.

The technology behind magnetic strips on debit and credit cards has been around since the 1970's. But the state of California still uses magnetic strips on EBT cards, debit cards used to distribute food assistance through CalFresh and low-income welfare funds through CalWORKs.

"A lot of this money is federal money. And so, it ultimately comes from the federal government and then the state matches. One of the things that is baffling to me is why the fed hasn't required a chip, when they transfer the money," said Chuck LaBella, a former San Diego U.S. Attorney.

Most consumers are used to seeing a chip on their credit cards these days. The technology works to prevent thieves from using card skimmers to read the magnetic strips.

A federal search warrant issued last week revealed that a Romanian card skimming ring is targeting EBT debit cards in San Diego and Los Angeles.

"A lot of the eastern European countries have crime syndicates that focus on soft spots. California is a soft spot," said LaBella.

Last year, a Romanian man was arrested, suspected of installing card skimmers on self-checkout machines at Walmart stores in Chula Vista, National City and Sherman Heights.

In March, agents arrested a Romanian woman accused of conspiring to use stolen EBT cards to purchase a quarter million dollars worth of merchandise, according to the search warrant.

Just last week, agents staked out a US Bank in El Cajon and arrested a Romanian National after he allegedly used cloned debit cards to withdraw cash from multiple accounts.

In California, when benefit money is stolen from EBT debit accounts, the state is on the hook to replace the money.

"As a taxpayer, it's completely unacceptable. As former law enforcement, it is a completely unacceptable approach to consumer protection and the protection of taxpayer money," said LaBella.

The state of California is proposing to spend $76.5 million over the next three years to improve EBT debit card security. It's not clear whether or not that budget proposal includes adding card chip technology.

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