Scammers swoop in, swipe Washington unemployment benefits

Scammers swoop in, swipe Washington unemployment benefits
Kari goes through documents, showing how a scammer was able to make thousands off fraudulent unemployment claims in her name. (Katie McDowell/KIRO 7)

This a story of fraudulent money cards and stolen identities.

Thieves are flooding the web, selling personal information on the cheap. And those bits and pieces of data are adding up to big bucks.

For many caught up in unemployment scams – like Kari – it begins with bad news in the mail.

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Kari is a finance manager for a Tacoma company, so unemployment verification notices from the Employment Security Department (ESD) come to her. But this letter from the state was personal.

Her reaction: “Wait a minute, am I reading this right? That’s my name!”

Kari – who’s asked us not to use her last name – never filed for unemployment. But a scammer did. So she called ESD.

“I inquired about what address did they use, what phone number did they use, what email address did they use? All incorrect, none of my information,” says Kari.

Kari learned the fraudulent unemployment benefits were loaded onto a Green Dot prepaid debit card. So she called about the account, using her personal information. She was able to get in, and get access to all the transactions.

According to Green Dot records, the scammer received two deposits for a total of about $2,500 by the time Kari’s company was notified by ESD. The account shows cash withdrawals in Florida.

Kari wanted to know: “How? why? Where’s the verification?”

Kimo Wasson’s trip to the mailbox contained a similar unwelcome surprise.

“The first three letters were in the mailbox the same day. And then a week later we got two more letters,” says Kimo.

Kimo is currently working in pharmaceutical sales. And it appears someone has not only applied for unemployment in his name, they tried to get a Walmart card too.

Kimo tried to call ESD to report the crime.

“It keeps telling me that they have system problems, call back another time,” says Kimo.

He eventually sent the ESD fraud department an email, but hasn’t heard back.

So how is this happening?

Tarik Saleh, a computer security expert with DomainTools, showed us one way. We asked him to find social security numbers for sale online.

It didn’t take long.

“I have one individual here, their addresses all over the world, their date of birth, and then I can click this button to purchase – for $5 – their social security number,” says Tarik.

A five dollar investment with the potential for thousands in return, when you combine state unemployment dollars and expanded federal benefits.

“And the profits you can make from that are just astronomical,” says Tarik.

Commissioner Suzi LeVine is head of the Employment Security Department. Her agency has been hit with more than a million unemployment claims, due to COVID-19’s effect on the economy, and paid out almost $2.9 billion since the beginning of March.

Commissioner LeVine says that, through April, more than 700 cases are currently under investigation involving more than $1.63 million. The number of cases shot up 27 times between just March and April.

In response, the department has moved 100 employees to answer the fraud department phone lines, leaving their 24 dedicated fraud investigators free to dig into reported crimes.

“We are still trying to gauge and understand and quantify what has been happening in May. It’s delayed because it hit our radar as the letters were arriving into different businesses,” says Commissioner LeVine.

Another issue: the department’s usual waiting week that gives employers enough time to vet claims has been waived so checks  are going out right away. Commissioner LeVine says they realized they were taking a risk, but went ahead in order to get money out faster to people who deserve it.

That’s why, for the next two days, all payments will be on hold while ESD evaluates claims for fraud.

But what about Kari’s case? Remember, she said the scammer changed her information to steal her benefits. In fact, she had been with her current employer for one year, but the scammer changed it to five. Why wasn’t that caught?

An ESD spokesperson told us:

“…if any information doesn’t match what the Department of Licensing database has it would flag it as potential fraud and set an issue on the claim.”

But today Commissioner LeVine added this:

“There’s some information that can be changed and some that cannot in terms of the tool that we have,” says Commissioner LeVine. “And in some cases it will set an issue and in other cases we do allow some of those changes to be made.”

So here's what you need to do to protect yourself: ESD says to create an account on their website and see if someone has changed your personal information.

If you find someone else has changed your information online, or if you get a letter about an application for unemployment you didn’t make, follow this checklist:

UNEMPLOYMENT FRAUD RECOVERY CHECKLIST

=> Step 1: Contact WA ESD

Call or email, following these instructions, to report the fraud.

If you are a victim of impostor fraud, the benefits paid out fraudulently will not count against you or your employer. ESD says they can’t respond to every email, but they should send a letter in the mail confirming they received your report.

=> Step 2: Contact HR

Report the fraud to your company so they can also take action, and see if there are more victims in your organization.

=> Step 3: File a police report

Call your local law enforcement non-emergency line or file a report online. Keep track of documents like your case number. You may need that for the future because there are certain protections available to victims of identity theft that aren’t available to the general public.

You should also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission, which tracks these issues.

=> Step 4: Protect your credit

Call one of the free national credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your account, or freeze your credit. Both are free by law.

A fraud alert will make it harder for impostors to open accounts or credit cards in your name. This is a good idea if you’re thinking of making a big purchase, like a house, and need to lenders to be able to run your credit.

A credit freeze gives you the most protection. It won't stop a scammer from getting benefits in your name, but it will keep them from using your social security number to open financial accounts.

Check your credit activity at least once a year. You can get a free credit report here.

=> Step 6: IRS

If someone applies for unemployment benefits in your name, your social security number is likely compromised. That means fraudsters may also use it to steal your federal income tax refund. You can create an IRS account with a Personal Identification Number (PIN) to use when filing online or by mail. Do that here.

See the rest of our reporting on Washington’s unemployment crisis: