HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - During the pandemic, Ted Anderson has been doing odd jobs, after working security began to feel too risky back when the virus began spreading at the beginning of 2020.
“I was exposed to hundreds of people a night, in fact, at the end of it, I was working at Pirates Voyage, where I was exposed to like 2,000 people a day,” the Carolina Forest resident explained. “And it just, being 69 years old, and COVID had come out, I just didn’t want to be exposed to it, so I quit.”
But when Anderson learned coronavirus-related federal aid was actually available to him, he thought it’d be a good idea to sign up to help with bills.
Anderson said the process with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce takes you through identifying and verifying your identity with ID.me, a verification provider the state struck up a partnership with last month.
“We finished the process, and he said, ‘Well, you’re good to go.’ And then we got back on the other site, the DEW site, and when I started to put my information in, it spit it out,” Anderson said.
It was only after a call with the department that Anderson understood what was going on. He was told he was getting kicked out of the system because somebody was filing an out-of-state claim from New York with his Social Security number.
“And evidently, he filed way back when it started, so he’s been in the system for a year,” Anderson said.
After being told to file a fraud claim, Anderson said he still hasn’t heard back from the department. It’s nearing two weeks, and he said he’s heard no word if or when benefits are on the way.
“Until they straighten that out, I can’t get any unemployment; I can’t do anything,” Anderson said. “Why is it on me when they made the mistake? Whoever that person is that applied - they didn’t check their social, and see who it belonged to? They just gave them unemployment?”
Cases like these have been a chronic problem across the country.
“This is part of the larger problem with economic crimes and identity crimes, that the onus for resolution is put on the victim. I don’t know of any other crime type where we put so much responsibility on the victim to clean up the mess,” said Eva Velasquez, president of Identity Theft Resource Center
Unemployment identity theft during the pandemic has risen to astronomical amounts, experts say, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing.
The Identity Theft Resource Center is a national nonprofit that provides free help to victims of various forms of identity theft.
MORE INFORMATION | Identity Theft Resource Center
Velasquez said in 2019, the organization received 19 calls for cases of unemployment identity theft. In 2020, they received more than 900.
“It’s because all of these identity credentials are already out there in the wild from previous data breaches, and unbeknownst to the actual owner of those credentials,” she explained. “For whatever reason, they weren’t getting in touch with the unemployment office until they needed those benefits, and then when they need them, they apply for them, only to be told that someone else has applied in their name and is already receiving those benefits.”
Government sources and experts have varying estimates on the national cost of this unemployment identity theft, but according to Velasquez, the latest numbers are at a jaw-dropping amount.
“The latest estimates have the cost nationally at close to $100 billion,” said Velasquez. “And some experts are saying it’s going to double that amount. So it’s a huge, huge loss to our entire economy, and to each individual that needs those dollars to meet their basic needs.”
Velasquez explained that fraudsters can range from individuals to global fraud rings. When a fraudster has an identity credential, they can take this and work to infiltrate state systems. This has been made easier after systems removed some authentication processes.
“We understand why. They were trying to make it easier for the people who had a legitimate claim. And we had to respect public health,” Velasquez explained.
Instead of people having to show up to an unemployment office to verify one’s identity, it switched to making claims online.
“But when you do that and you remove some of those barriers, you not only make it easier for the folks that have a legitimate claim that needs to be processed; you make it that much easier for the thieves,” she said.
SCDEW officials said they’ve been working diligently to try to prevent this.
The agency said that as of February 2021, the department has submitted a total of 2,855 unemployment insurance claims to state or federal authorities for investigation and prosecution for UI fraud.
“We were one of the first states to point out to [the Department of Labor] that the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) program would be vulnerable for fraud. We were also one of the first states to implement identity verification measures,” a spokesperson for the department said to WMBF.
Just last month, DEW reported an instance of receiving nearly 20,000 attempts to open fraudulent accounts, and 975 of those attempts used a Social Security Number that had already been associated with an existing DEW claimant.
“None of the attempts were able to file a claim for UI benefits, and there was no monetary loss,” DEW reported.
“I guess internet fraud is so damn popular now, everybody’s doing it with everything that is going on,” said Anderson. “It just amazes me that people can think of nothing better to do than to try to rip somebody off.”
Velasquez said antiquated state IT infrastructure, lack of enough personnel to handle claims and complaints and enough authentication verifications in place have made this national problem more difficult to resolve.
Velasquez said there are some strategies they recommend if someone finds they are a victim of unemployment identity fraud.
The first thing you can do is freeze your credit.
“You are locking down and not allowing someone that has access to those credentials to open new accounts in your name,” Velasquez said. “It’s free, you can do it for yourself and your kids, and it’s relatively easy; it’s not as cumbersome as it used to be. So it’s one of the best proactive protection steps that people can take.”
DEW said if its investigation finds you were a victim of imposter fraud, you don’t owe that money back.
“The fraud protection statutes generally protect people from having to be responsible for those debts. That being said, not everyone is made whole 100% of the time, so I wouldn’t be complacent about it either,” she said.
Velasquez said it’s a good idea to get an identity protection PIN with the IRS.
“It’s an extra layer of protection, so even if someone else has your identity credentials, if they don’t have that PIN number, they can’t file taxes in your name,” she said.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of shame or embarrassment if someone doesn’t know how to handle these situations; they kind of think, ‘I should know how to do this,’ so rather than seek help and professional advice, they try to just slog through it themselves,” Velasquez said. “There is no shame in not understanding these complicated processes.”
WMBF reached out to DEW for an interview but the department said it did not have someone available. However, the department offered to have someone from their integrity unit look into Anderson’s claim.
The department said fraud is hard to quantify because it’s not possible to know all that has been prevented, but DEW did say that after implementing an identity verification measure back in September, 37,000 people have since abandoned their claim at that stage.
“We can’t definitively state these claims are all fraud, but there really is no other reason for someone to abandon their claim and not provide us with documentation, despite several attempts on our part to help them,” the spokesperson said in an email.
DEW has posted a list of what you can do to prevent unemployment fraud or scams from happening if you’re working with the agency:
- DEW will never charge you for services.
- Paying someone will not process your claim faster.
- Do not post your personal or claimant data to any social media platform.
- Our agency will not leave claim information on a voicemail. If we leave you a message, we will ask you to return our call to speak with you personally.
- Complete all information on a claim honestly, including any wages earned each week that you certify.
- Do not give anyone your username and password to the MyBenefits portal.
- Do not send personal or claimant information through social media comments. The agency’s Facebook and Instagram accounts are verified. Any other accounts claiming to help you with your personal claim or get your benefits are a scam.
- Email and text phishing attempts have become very common. These schemes aim to trick the recipient into clicking a link and transmitting sensitive information. Do not click links or provide personally identifying information through text or email. DEW will not send text messages or emails soliciting information.
You can find more information on how to address unemployment identity theft fraud that has already happened on DEW’s website.