The scourge of Covid-19 infecting the world for going on a year is frightening enough. Add to that identity crooks who steal funds from those affected.
An estimated $36 billion in fraudulent unemployment payments have been scammed from U.S. citizens, USA Today reports. How much Arlington residents have lost is unknown, but impostors seeking to steal funds have made the lives of many here more difficult.
Of those in town who have felt the sting of online thieves, consider the story of one resident who asked YourArlington to remain anonymous.
Furloughed from his job in late May as the coronavirus tightened its grip, he was notified by mail that a pandemic unemployment claim had been fraudulently opened using his Social Security a few days earlier. "My number was stolen during the Expedia [data breach] from three years ago," he wrote. In the end, "I was able to work through this major issue with the DUA [Mass. Department of Unemployment Assistance] and received my unemployment checks."
The matter took months to resolve.
"I realized I was hacked when I went to apply for unemployment benefits," he wrote. "I didn’t contact the police -- what could they do?"
Then in mid-July 15, the state denied unemployment payment because of identity fraud linked to the earlier fraudulent claim.
"Again, I contacted DUA and thought we had resolved the issue," he wrote. But no; further confusion ensued about a work log.
Told he was all set, he was again denied because of identity fraud. To resolve that, he provided his Social Security card, his driver's license and electric bill, as requested.
"I understand DUA is overburdened with the influx of claims but to be told time after time for me to just wait for resolution is disheartening," he wrote. "No timetable was discussed."
After going weeks without unemployment, in late September, he emailed the office of state Sen. Cindy Friedman. She responded same day. Four days later, he got a call from a man described as a state DUA “senior adjuster," who requested documents that he had previously sent.
The Arlington resident who had had his identity stolen received payment in October for nine weeks of benefits owed.
Thanking Friedman for her efforts, he asked her to get some help to the people who work at DUA. "All [at the state agency] tried to help but couldn’t do much truthfully," he wrote. "She acknowledged she would look into it."
Weekly checks have continued, the resident wrote just before Christmas.
Elizabeth Berman, a representative for Friedman, wrote that her office helped two Arlington residents with this specific issue. "That said, there were probably countless other residents who did not reach out to our office for assistance," she wrote.
Arlington police provided statistics illustrating the sharp rise in complaints about identity fraud before the pandemic, in 2019, and after. See box below.
“We don’t know them. We don’t know who they are; it’s nobody.”
-- Nigerian scammer
California officials drew headlines recently for announcing they suspect as much as $2 billion was paid out in improper payments. Other states have reported lower losses: $242 million in Massachusetts, $200 million in Michigan, $18 million in Rhode Island, $8 million in Arizona and $6 million in Wisconsin.
To investigators familiar with identity theft, the story follows a pattern, and an investigation by USA Today spells it out.
In a Zoom session with the camera turned off, an engineering student in Nigeria who estimates he’s made about $50,000 since the pandemic began tells the newspaper how he grabbed U.S. unemployment benefits supported by Covid-19 relief.
Essential to the scam are databases of hacked information. After the impostor compiles a list of real people, he pays $2 in cryptocurrency to gain access to a link to names, including dates of birth and Social Security numbers.
In most states that information is all it takes to file for unemployment. Even when state applications require additional verification, a bit more money spent on such sites as Family Tree Now and TruthFinder provides added information -- your mother’s maiden name, where you were born, your high school mascot. The thief told USA Today that he is successful about one in six times he files a claim.
“Once we have that information, it’s over,” he is quoted as saying. “It’s easy money.”
The student took USA Today provided the inside look in an interview arranged by security firm Agari, using only his first name to hide his identity. The security company pays him in Bitcoin to provide information about active scams.
Began on West Coast
Coronavirus-era unemployment fraud was first identified in the state of Washington in May and since has spread to all 50 states.
In addition to the crushing volume of legitimate claims during Covid-19 and public pressure to speed up payments, mobile banking apps and prepaid debit cards issued by some state unemployment offices paved the way for fraud this year, security experts said.
The step-by-step playbook the scammers follow is shared on Telegram, an app that provides cloud-based anonymous messaging and acts as an internet bulletin board of tips and questions.
How does the scammer feel about stealing from unemployed Americans? The impostor told the newspaper that 70 percent of his peers in school are working the scams. “No, no remorse,” he was quoted as saying. “We don’t know them. We don’t know who they are; it’s nobody.”
Other victims in town
The following responded to YourArlington's question: Have you been the victim of unemployment-benefits fraud? All did not want their names used.
- "I have only a vague recollection that I called the town police after filing the fraud report with the state and feds and maybe was told by APD that it did not need any info about it because I had filed with the state and feds."
- "About a month ago I received a letter from the state that I had applied for unemployment, which I certainly did not, as I am employed. Mass.gov_____has a specific site on their website where you can notify them if this has happened to you, which I did ... so I guess it is not uncommon. Quite disturbing though that someone filed under my name."
- "I found out about it Friday, Dec 4. It was filed 11/08/2020, and yes, I am employed part time. My employer got the notice and passed it on to me. I found out that several people I know had the same situation around the same time, even my doctor. I imagine it must be tied to a specific data breach."
USA Today, Dec. 30, 2020: How scammers siphoned $36B in fraudulent unemployment payments from U.S.
New York Times, Nov. 20, 2020: Unemployment Scam Using Inmates’ Names Costs California Hundreds of Millions
This news summary was published Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.