Crime teeming during COVID-19

Unemployment claims statewide reached 15.1% in April. Loan volume for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in Washington alone has climbed to $12.1 billion so far. With an olive branch extended, fraudsters are on the prowl. During May, both the Employment Security Department (ESD) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) alerted the public to potential scammers who are targeting resources intended to provide financial relief in response to COVID-19. With identity theft rampant, it is imperative to be aware of how imposters are operating and what to do if it happens to you.
 
Washington State unemployment benefits pay among the most in the country – up to $790 per week. Currently, another $600 per week is paid in accordance with The Cares Act. This sizeable check is creating cases of false unemployment claims. Applications are being submitted using stolen identities. People working may very well have payments, filed under their name, going to someone unbeknownst to them. This can easily go undetected if you are not mindful of the situation. Both employers and individuals need to make it a point to find out if their information has been used because the problem is widespread.  
 
Lisa Perry, Community Relations Manager for Sierra Pacific Industries, revealed that the company has uncovered 30 illegitimate claims in Washington thus far. “We reviewed our employer ESD account and saw current employees on the list, including one with eight weeks of payments already issued,” Perry warns. “Businesses who think they haven’t had a breach, probably just don’t know it.”
 
The sheer volume of overall claims – 1 in 4 Washington workers – allows the system to be duped. The agency insists that there has not been a data breach, rather the personal information being used was previously obtained somehow. A recent article in The New York Times details how international hackers are suspected. Figuring out which claims are false, and which are real, is another task ESD must sort out. For now, they are relying on a new national fraud detection system that spots irregularities and flags it for investigation. Recently, ESD delayed all payments for a few days to verify authenticity of payments after hearing from countless employers that received notifications for claims they did not file. They also increased staff within the Special Investigations team as call volumes continue at levels 1000% over normal and are making changes to enhance customer verification.
 
Employers need to be concerned with how this ultimately may affect their experience rating with ESD. Immediately, log in to your SecureAccess Washington account to compare an active payroll roster with any active unemployment claims. Individuals can do the same or create an account (even if it will not be used) to see if employment records are accurate. Although not responsible for paying back money, it’s important to safeguard personal data from other potential fraud.
 
Follow these steps to report unemployment fraud:
 
1. Contact WA State ESD 
Call the WA State ESD at 800-246-9763 to report the fraud or do so online. You will need the following information for identity verification:
  • Social Security Number
  • Date of birth
  • Mailing address
  • Current phone number
  • How you learned a claim was filed on your behalf
        
2. File a police report
Submit a non-emergency report with the agency where you live. Within Mason County, call (360) 427-9670 x313. 
 
3.  Notify the three major credit bureaus
Check your credit activity annually. Victims of identity theft can check more often. To obtain free credit reports, visit annualcreditreport.com. Report to each credit bureau using the case number from your police report. Request a fraud alert add a credit freeze.
 
4.  Inform the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at identity.gov to report it and create a recovery plan.
 
5.  Consider locking your social security number using e-verify to protect employment-related fraud.
 
ESD cited statewide unemployment claims were down 65% the week ending May 23 over the prior week in part due to fraud prevention measures they implemented. In fact, officials reportedly recovered $300 million from the phony claims just last week. Nonetheless, identity theft is the fastest growing crime. Other scams happening since to COVID-19 include phony charity donation offers, fake vaccine lures, e-commerce sites for masks/sanitizers, and spoofing government and health communications. Report any and all COVID-19 fraud to the National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline by calling (866) 720-5721.
 
Business owners are prime targets right now. The SBA established a webpage dedicated to addressing scams and fraud as notice to grant and loan applicants to beware of anyone who initiates contact with an offer of loan approval. Unless you started an application, suspect fraud. The SBA never requires any payment up front or offers interim bridge loans. Furthermore, be on the lookout for emails containing the SBA logo and confirm the correspondence originated from an account ending with sba.gov.
 
For the latest fraud alerts, visit fraud.org for a description of known scams. For a glimpse at how vast the problem truly has become, read a Consumer Affairs report on 2020 identity theft trends and statistics. Victims of identity theft may have special accommodations available to them such as getting certain public records sealed. Countless resources are available to proactively protect your identity too. Check out a publication titled Surveillance Self Defense assembled by Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit defending civil liberties in the digital world, it promises to be a complete guide of tips and tools that create safer online privacy and security. 
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