Criminals using dark web to try to beat Washington employment system

VIDEO: Criminals using dark web to try to beat Washington employment system

WASHINGTON — While Washington’s unemployment system cracks down on criminals defrauding taxpayers of millions of dollars, cybersecurity experts have found profiles for Washington state residents and how-to manuals on defrauding that same system on the dark web.

The crackdown at the Employment Security Department impacted an estimated 200,000 people filing for benefits, thousands of whom had to wait weeks for their identities to be verified.

Ali Brownrigg, owner of Swan Dive Vintage in Pioneer Square, was one of them.

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“When people stopped going out, that was just it for me,” she said.

Her online shop for Swan Dive Vintage is all that remains of Brownrigg's boutique after the pandemic took its toll.

"A few weeks of no sales-- just... the writing was on the wall immediately," she said.

Brownrigg filed for unemployment, and after getting a couple weeks of payments in May, the payments stopped.

"I got a letter that I was being investigated for fraud," she said. "My identity needed to be verified."

Brownrigg quickly sent copies of the requested documents but heard nothing for weeks.

"I've just been up nights, worrying and wondering what's going on," she said.

"What do you think about the length of time it's taken to verify some of these identities?" KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

"It's extremely frustrating," Brownrigg said.

Criminals used people's identities to file benefits and steal an estimated $550 to $650 million dollars, according to ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine. She said they are working to come up with a better estimate of how many fraudulent claims the department caught.

Cybersecurity expert Bryan Seely discovered profiles for sale online even now, two months after the state's crackdown.

"A name, first, last, social, address, phone number," he said, describing the information available for people living in Washington state.

KIRO 7 alerted one King County man about what was being sold online, but he quickly hung up.

"They're also selling the how-to guides for how to exploit the Washington unemployment system," Seely said. He revealed criminals selling on the dark web put up money as a way of showing their information will work.

"You put up a bond to be able to sell on a lot of these marketplaces that can be in the tens of thousands of dollars as a method of ensuring that you're not there to rip people off," he said. "If the product didn't deliver, didn't work, people will write a review... it's like leaving a bad Yelp review."

Seely said websites on the dark web even have customer service to deal with disputes between anonymous buyers and sellers.

Given that all this is happening illegally, KIRO 7 asked the FBI's Seattle Office whether it was tracking these types of postings.

"It is something that law enforcement is well aware of," Ethan Via, supervisor of the Complex Financial Crimes Squad for the FBI Seattle division, said. Via said people need to assume "that all of our personal information is out there in one way, shape or form."

Via also said people should be using different and longer passwords to prevent more information from being stolen.

"It's a good idea to change those on a regular basis," he said. "I'd say every three months or so."

And he recommends that people regularly review bank statements for suspicious transactions to stop identity theft as soon as it starts.

"It's probably a good idea, if you suspect your information is out there, to put a fraud alert on your account," he said. "You can contact any one of the four major credit bureaus."

Even ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine called out the dark web content on Thursday during a news conference.

"They are publishing guides to every single state for how do you navigate our employment insurance system," she said, "and there were basically four states where they said 'Steer clear, because you're likely to be tracked and or arrested,' and those four states include Washington."

KIRO 7 did not see that warning on the website where Seely found the how-to manual and profiles for sale.

"Are you confident that ESD is preventing most fraudulent claims now?" reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.

"Yes, I am," LeVine said. "We are actively scouring the claims made for a number of different characteristics and applying sophisticated data analytics that we are going to be embedding more deeply in our system in order to keep them out."

Ali Brownrigg hopes all the delays have been worth it.

She said she received a call from the ESD at the end of June, saying she had passed the identity verification step and ESD needed to sort out another detail. But after that conversation, and despite her claims showing as “paid,” she did not receive any money.

Brownrigg says she was notified in by ESD in late July that her bank denied the direct deposit and discovered that her banking information in her ESD account was gone. She said she re-entered the information and then requested a direct deposit, which she finally received a couple days after she spoke with KIRO 7.

"On one hand, I'm grateful they're being so diligent about [the fraud]," she said. "On the other hand, it's kind of scary to think that it was that easy for that department to be defrauded out of so many millions of dollars."

If you believe you’re a victim of identity theft, the FBI recommends reporting it the business or agency involved and to report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.