States have been seeing an uptick in unemployment fraud and local communities are no exception.
The Weatherford Police Department reported at least 15 cases of unemployment fraud between March 16 and April 6.
“I believe that with COVID-19 restrictions keeping people at home for most of last year and into this year, government benefits are being pushed out to help the American people in several forms,” WPD Financial Crimes Investigator Corporal Chris Beniak said. “With that mass push for assistance comes an opportunity for criminals to commit fraud since the agencies providing assistance are being overwhelmed with requests for help. Since they are overwhelmed, they have little time to truly evaluate each request for assistance and are just giving help to those who request it.”
Mineral Wells Police Chief Dean Sullivan said while their department has taken reports of identity theft in the past year or so, the frequency of the unemployment fraud cases has eclipsed the bulk of reports received over the same period.
“This department has received a dozen or so reports involving fraudulent unemployment claims with the compromised identities of city employees — currently still employed with the city,” he said. “The cases in Mineral Wells and surrounding areas are not isolated. There are a number of profiles persons who have fallen victim to this same scheme, including elected officials at local and state levels.”
The U.S. Department of Labor has issued information regarding red flags to look for and what to do if you become a victim of unemployment identity theft.
“States have experienced a surge in fraudulent unemployment claims filed by organized crime rings using stolen identities that were accessed or purchased from past data breaches, the majority of which occurred in previous years and involved larger criminal efforts unrelated to unemployment,” according to the DOL’s website. “Criminals are using these stolen identities to fraudulently collect benefits across multiple states.”
The DOL said someone may be a victim of unemployment identity theft if they receive mail from a government agency about an unemployment claim or payment and they did not file for benefits, a 1099-G tax form reflecting unemployment benefits they weren’t expecting and/or a notice from your employer indicating a request for information about an unemployment claim was made in the person’s name.
“Specific to unemployment fraud, unless and until an actual data breach is made known, we simply do not have much information to process,” Sullivan said. “It is apparent the bad guys know everything about the person(s) whose identities have been compromised in these unemployment fraud cases. However, the nexus or commonalities among victims is widespread and far-reaching such that we do not believe the data breach came from within a single municipal or government organization.”
The Texas Workforce Commission issued a press release on April 2 reminding the public to keep personal information secure. The TWC said indicators that someone may be encountering a scammer include a person asking for a credit card number, saying there’s a fee for processing the claim and/or asks for more than the last four digits of a bank account and routing number.
“When you are contacted by a legitimate TWC specialist they will need to confirm your identity and will ask for your Social Security number and date of birth. However, a TWC specialist will never ask for a credit card number or state that there is any kind of fee associated with your claim,” according to the release. “There is no fee for filing UI and a TWC specialist cannot change banking information, so the full number is unnecessary. TWC does not conduct business on social media. Any social media site claiming to be affiliated with TWC that solicits information is fraudulent.”
To that end, Beniak said it’s important for people to pay attention if they get a notification about being selected or denied a benefit.
“If the notification comes in an email form, be careful clicking on links in the email as those could be a part of a scam,” he said. “Follow up as soon as possible by filing the proper reports to avoid being further victimized. Be vigilant and pay attention to what’s going on around you.”
Sullivan and Beniak said if someone suspects they are a victim, there are several things they can do: Make a police report, if possible; notify their employer; fill out a fraud report with the Federal Trade Commission, identitytheft.gov; notify credit bureaus and consider placing a “fraud alert” or “credit freeze” on new lines of credit associated with their name; monitor their credit; and/or report the fraud to the Texas Workforce Commission.
“Fraudulent use of identifying information is a felony-level offense, starting at a state jail felony — a punishment of 180 days to two years and a $10,000 fine,” Beniak said. “It can go higher depending on the age of the victim or if there are several victims.”
The Texas Workforce Commission has a Fraud and Abuse Hotline that is operational 24/7 at 800-252-3642 and an online fraud submission portal where individuals can report suspected fraud at twc.texas.gov.