A Wave of Fraud: Imposters Claim Jobless Benefits
In an unusually widespread scam, criminals are using fake identities to target a pandemic relief program that helps unemployed workers in the gig economy. Computer-savvy crooks, who are linked to large, well-organized operations, are stealing benefits from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program (PUA), which was hastily put together to help independent contractors, freelancers, and others who cannot claim traditional jobless benefits.
Criminals get hold of an innocent person’s identification, such as their Social Security or driver’s license numbers, and then make illicit claims for the benefit. State labor departments, which have been overwhelmed this year by real claims for unemployment, have been caught off guard.
They also have been startled by the vast scope of the crime, with reports from all over the country. According to the New York Times, Washington State alone has identified 87,000 fake claims since the spring. Many of those cases were linked to a Nigerian enterprise known as Scattered Canary, suspected of fraud in Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Wyoming and Oklahoma.
Colorado officials have said that 77 percent of PUA claims during a six-week period this summer were phony. California recently suspended processing claims for two weeks to get a handle on the problem. The Kansas Department of Labor said it has blocked 45,000 bogus claims.
Victims of the scam run all the risks that come with identity theft, as well as potential hold-ups if they seek PUA benefits for themselves. “Be aware that your personal information may be used fraudulently without your permission,” the Department of Labor’s (DOL) Office of Inspector General said in an alert. The DOL is now spending $100 million to address the scam. The PUA program was launched rapidly and has lacked the security of established unemployment benefits. Swindlers have used various means of obtaining personal ID, including phishing emails that try to pry personal information out of their targets.
Anyone with knowledge about this scam is asked to call the DOL’s Office of Inspector General’s Hotline at 202-693-6999 or 1-800-347-3756 or go online to https://www.oig.dol.gov/hotline.htm.