Fraudsters using local identities for phony jobless claims

The Everett School District, for example, saw about 310 false claims using employees’ personal information.

EVERETT — Diane Bradford learned last week that someone has been using her identity to make bogus claims for unemployment insurance.

She has plenty of company, as imposters are scamming systems set up to help jobless workers in states across the country. Federal investigators believe an international fraud ring is behind the massive theft. It’s taking advantage of overwhelmed state unemployment agencies tasked with quickly providing money to millions of people whose jobs disappeared or were curtailed overnight because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 1 million people in Washington have filed for unemployment benefits since businesses started closing in March due to COVID-19.

The use of stolen identities from Snohomish County residents has been pervasive.

In the Mukilteo School District where Bradford is communications director, there have been more than 160 reports of fraudulent claims using employees names and identifying information, including Social Security numbers.

In the Everett School District, that number was 310 as of late last week.

In Marysville, 130 school district employees, including some retirees, had their personal information used by fraudsters to apply for unemployment checks.

“There are about 20 or more coming in each day,” said Jodi Runyon, a school district spokesperson.

Colleges, municipal government and the private sector also have been hit.

Staff at Everett Community College have been informing about 200 employees that their identities have been used to make false claims.

So far, 85 fraudulent claims have been made in Snohomish County employees’ names, county spokesperson Kent Patton said Tuesday afternoon.

City of Everett employees also have been targeted, but the exact number was not available in time for this story’s deadline.

Bradford described the experience as “unnerving.”

“When you know someone has that information, you know things can go south,” she said.

For Bradford, that has meant being vigilant in contacting financial institutions, updating passwords and monitoring her accounts.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the U.S. Secret Service believes a Nigerian fraud ring is behind the phony claims that have affected several states — with Washington emerging as “the primary target” in a scheme that could result in “potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Suzi LeVine, the state Employment Security Department commissioner, reported late last week a significant rise in imposter fraud since the beginning of May. She said her agency has not had a security breach and no data has been taken from it. Likewise, local school districts and municipalities say there is no evidence that their systems have been compromised.

“What we are seeing is that a victim’s personal information has been stolen from some other source, for example in one of the massive external data breaches like the Equifax breach, and is then used by criminals to apply for benefits and attempt to route those payments to their own bank accounts,” LeVine said in a statement. “Many Washingtonians did not know their information had been stolen in the past, and this situation has only illuminated that fact as fraudsters attempt to get unemployment benefits in Washingtonians’ names.”

Since recognizing the depth and breadth of the attack, the Employment Security Department has hired dozens of more fraud investigators.

In Bradford’s case, the scammers tried using her identity through her current employer, the Mukilteo School District, and her former employer, the Everett School District.

Although she has not lost money, Bradford knows her name has been used by someone trying to prosper from a pandemic and that they still have some of her personal information.

“Knock on wood, so far everything seems to be intact,” she said. “The scary part is the sitting and waiting.”

Eric Stevick: stevick@heraldnet.com

If you believe you are a victim

• Go to esd.wa.gov/fraud and report it immediately using the instructions on that page.

• Go to the FTC identity theft website, identitytheft.gov. It has the most current, detailed step-by-step process for reporting and protecting people from further victimization.

• Request your free credit reports via annualcreditreport.com and review them for other fraudulent activities.

• Find additional tips from the Washington State Attorney General at atg.wa.gov/recovering-identity-theft-or-fraud.

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