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As if losing your job or a string of paychecks during a coronavirus-related furlough isn’t stressful enough, now those who file for unemployment benefits are being warned to watch out for professional crime rings.
And the crooks could create headaches for you, too, even if you’re lucky enough to still be working or perhaps even retired.
Add this to a long list of COVID-19 headaches.
Across the country, consumers are being warned that fraud is on the rise relating to jobless claims — trouble has already been spotted in Pennsylvania.
On Friday, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia urged residents to be aware of scams after the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry said the agency has received reports of scams and attempts at identity theft.
The alert noted that a significant amount of fraudulent claims have used stolen ID information from school employees, first responders, as well as government employees. Then, the scammers direct the money to be sent to their own bank accounts.
“Scammers are working overtime during this crisis and trying to take advantage of the nearly 1 in 3 Pennsylvanians who have lost a job.” said Attorney General Shapiro. “We will not let anyone ripoff the public and the millions who are out of work.”
Some data being used might belong to anyone whether they’re jobless or not. Retirees, for example, report receiving unemployment forms to verify their identity from the state when they didn’t try to make any claims recently.
The online con artists claim to be gig workers or self-employed workers in some cases to steal money from the unemployment system.
Jobless benefits have become particularly lucrative for thieves during the coronavirus crisis. An extra $600 in benefits may be added on top of state jobless benefits for those who lose work due to the COVID-19 crisis under the new federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
Increasingly, victims of identity theft are finding out their personal information was stolen once they receive an unemployment compensation check, or a direct deposit of unemployment aid, which they never applied for.
The losses from these claims are estimated to be in the several hundred million dollar range, according to an alert issued by the Secret Service. The crimes are fueled by data lost in leaks, breaches, phishing attacks and even oversharing on social media.
Some banks or credit unions also may place a hold on a customer’s account if the financial institution suspects fraud. Customers need to work directly with the bank if that’s the case.
The state unemployment agency is working with law enforcement to determine the level of fraud here.
The state will temporarily suspend certain payments to prevent fraud when it suspects malicious claims.
State Rep. Sheryl Delozier took to Twitter last month after receiving more than $7,000 in unemployment compensation checks. Delozier, a Republican representing Cumberland County, never filed a claim and said received the checks at an address she never lived.
“Our offices are using every resource at the state and federal level to figure out who these criminals are and put a stop to this theft,” Shapiro said. “If you get a check you didn’t apply for or a deposit you are questioning, please contact our offices. We need the public’s help to address these crimes.”
More than 50,000 people may have been affected, but Shapiro’s office has not come up with a total yet. We do know, however, that more than 2.3 million Pennsylvanians have filed unemployment claims since March 15.
Is this email from the unemployment office a scam?
As emails popped up in the past few days, some wondered if they were looking at another potential scam. Why would the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry be contacting you about “an international criminal ring exploiting the COVID-19 crisis”? Really? It just sounds so strange.
But it’s legitimate.
Some who filed jobless claims in Pennsylvania began receiving emails to alert them that more ID verification would be needed, thanks to fears of an online crime spree. Some received letters in the mail prior to the emails being sent.
What to do if you’re a victim of unemployment compensation fraud
If you learn that you are a victim of unemployment compensation fraud, you may need to manage the damage.
Steps should be taken to monitor your credit report to spot any signs of con artists who may try to open up credit cards using your ID. Use strong passwords when going online. Don’t click on any links or attachments unless you can confirm the authenticity of the sender.
You may even want to take steps to freeze your credit so that crooks may not open up new credit cards or take out new loans using your ID.
You might also check with your human resources department or your insurer. Many offer services to help victims sort out identity-related fraud.
How to avoid becoming a victim of unemployment compensation fraud
The Attorney General’s office offered the following tips:
- If you receive a paper check for unemployment benefits in the mail but did not file for such benefits in Pennsylvania, do not cash the check.
- If you receive a direct deposit for unemployment benefits but did not file for such benefits in Pennsylvania, do not use the funds. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry website contains detailed instructions for returning the money.
Victims should report suspected identity theft to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. A form is available on the Department’s website or through the Fraud Hotline 1-800-692-7469.
Sam Ruland is the Pennsylvania issues reporter for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network, covering all aspects of life in Pennsylvania. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 717-654-8779 and follow her on Twitter @sam_ruland.
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