Impostors wreak havoc on Washington state unemployment system

VIDEO: Washington's unemployment system under attack

SEATTLE — In the last five days, the King County Sheriff's Office has had nearly 1,700 victims file police reports online. Victims don't know they've been targeted until they get a letter in the mail.

Many of the letters mention the Self-Employment Assistance Program (SEAP) and suggest those who are out of work could become entrepreneurs.

It is part of the impostor fraud hitting unemployment systems from Washington, to Massachusetts and to Florida.

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The Secret Service is investigating a multimillion dollar fraud scheme led by an organization with ties to Nigeria targeting the unemployment security system.

The scammers are hitting at the same time when states are rushing unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Don't panic,; this is not a good letter to get. It is an awful feeling, and if you're one of those people trying to get benefits,, it's worse," said Patrick Hinds, chair of the Economic Crimes Unit and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (KCPAO).

According to Hinds, victims must act quickly and report the fraud to their employer, the Employment Security Department, local police and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) .

Makes sure you check your credit report and consider a freeze.

The recent scam letters have claims that were open in March, but the letter came last week. The Employment Security Department stated that's because the Cares Act allowed for retroactive claims; thus, this is new fraud with old dates.

Advice from the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office:

Step 1: Contact your employer

Step 2: Contact ESD

It is important to contact ESD to notify them of the issue and report the fraud. There are two main ways to do this:

ESD's preferred contact method at the moment is via the online report system. It is currently receiving an extremely high number of calls and no longer have email reporting available.

You will need to have the following information when you contact ESD:

  • Your full name.
  • Your last four numbers of your Social Security number.
  • Your address, date of birth, and phone number.
  • Information on how you learned a claim was filed on your behalf.

Step 3 (a): File a police report

It is important to file an online or non-emergency report with the law enforcement agency whose jurisdiction you live in.

o Sometimes, what starts as an apparently "minor" identity theft can turn into something bigger later. In that situation, having a record that shows you reported the issue early on can be helpful in trying to mitigate and undo any financial damage.

o In addition, some government services and accommodations are available to victims of identity theft that are not available to the general public, such as getting certain public records sealed. However, many of those sorts of steps require the matter to be reported to law enforcement, and it's usually easier to have done this as soon as the matter occurs.

If you live in Seattle, you can file an online report at:

Start keeping a file folder or journal with the information from this incident, including any case numbers.

Step 3 (b): Report the matter to the FTC

Along with filing a police report, the KCPAO strongly encourages victims to also report the matter to the FTC.

  • Having an FTC report filed is a helpful (and sometimes necessary) step in accessing some of the government and private sector services and accommodations that are available to victims of identity theft.
  • In addition, the FTC is the main clearinghouse for national data and statistics on identity theft, so important questions affecting the deployment of local, state and federal resources are answered by referencing their data. The FTC’s numbers are -— in large part -— based on victims’ self-reporting. As a result, having instances of identity theft reported to the FTC is an important part of making sure the data is as accurate as possible.

The report with the FTC can be filed online at: https://www.identitytheft.gov/.

Step 4: Follow up with the three major credit bureaus

Obtain your free credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion at www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.

Report to the credit bureaus that the fraudulent claim was made using your identity and provide them with the case number from your police and/or FTC report. You can have a fraud alert put on your identity or freeze your credit.

A fraud alert is free and will make it harder for someone to open new accounts in your name. To place a fraud alert, contact one of the three credit bureaus. That company must tell the other two.

  • Experian: 1-888-397-3742
  • TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
  • Equifax: 1-888-766-0008

Check your credit activity at least once a year. As a victim of identity theft, you have the right to check it monthly if you choose.

Credit Freeze: If you do not have upcoming large purchases, such as a home, you may want to freeze your credit for more protection. It is free, and you can do it yourself. More information about this option can be found at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0497-credit-freeze-faqs.

Other helpful hints

Hang on to your notes, copies of emails, etc., as you go along. This is a paper trail that you can reference in the future if identity issues or inaccuracies on your credit history come up.

In addition to reporting the matter to the FTC, generally review the information available from the FTC about how to respond to, limit the damage from, and start recovering from identity theft. Both the "identity theft" section of the main FTC website and the dedicated identity theft site are treasure troves of useful and reassuring information.

Similarly useful information, as well as additional information regarding the state of Washington’s response to identity theft, can be found at the “identity theft” section of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office website at https://www.atg.wa.gov/identity-theftprivacy/.