According to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, 58,616 of the 1.6 million unemployment claims, and claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which provides benefits to contractors and people who are self-employed, filed between March 8 and June 30, were determined to be fraudulent.
NATICK — John and Stephanie Jennings received quite a surprise during the coronavirus pandemic.
Early in the outbreak, Stephanie opened a letter from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance that said her unemployment benefits claim had been processed.
The problem is she never filed one, because she wasn’t out of work.
A few weeks later, John received a similar letter from the DUA. He was also employed, working remotely from home.
Someone — or some entity — stole the couple’s personal identification, and filed fraudulent claims with the DUA.
It’s a similar story in other parts of Metrowest, and beyond.
Sudbury police report as many as five to 10 daily cases of illegal unemployment claims over the past few weeks.
“There’s been an uptick recently. It’s been substantial,” said Sudbury Police Chief Scott Nix.
In Milford, police report 35 fraudulent cases in the past five months.
“People taking advantage of others during a pandemic is a horrible situation, and they should be prosecuted,” said Milford Police Chief Michael Pighetti.
Since March 1, the Shrewsbury Police Department has documented more than 300 identity theft reports — as many as 15 on some days — involving unemployment insurance and SBA loans. Many of the local victims are in the medical and financial fields and educators.
“I’ve investigated a lot of identity theft over the years. But nothing to this magnitude with this number of victims that were compromised,” said police Detective Paul Brown, a 20-year veteran who is the department’s sole detective.
A prominent Worcester official was also a target. School Superintendent Maureen Binienda said she was the first Worcester school employee to be victimized. In one case, the perpetrator was paid $10,000. Two subsequent attempts were thwarted. Illegal claims targeted 500 Worcester employees in all, including 100 each in the schools and Fire Department.
Fraudulent claims statewide spiked during the pandemic.
According to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees the DUA, between March 8 and June 30, 58,616 of the 1.6 million unemployment claims and claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, which provides benefits to contractors and people who are self-employed, were determined to be fraudulent.
Information on claims filed since July 1 has not been made public.
After several days of trying to get information about the proliferation of the fraud, Charles Pearce, spokesperson for EOLWD, told a reporter last week that an interview with Secretary Rosalin Acosta could not be accommodated.
Officials said $158 million from fraudulent claims filed between March 8 and June 30 were recovered. But the amount that was not recovered has not been made public.
Scott Dahl, the recently retired inspector general for the Department of Labor, told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Government Operations in June about the high risk for fraud with the $110 billion pandemic unemployment assistance program because of states’ reliance solely on self-certification to determine eligibility. He estimated that approximately $26 billion of unemployment benefits could be wasted with a large portion going to fraudsters.
In May, the DUA said criminal enterprises used stolen personal information from earlier national data breaches to file large amounts of illegitimate unemployment claims through the DUA system. At the time, the DUA put in additional identity verification measures. The result was a delay in processing some legitimate claims.
Local police are limited in what they can do to combat the problem, beyond filing a report, Pighetti said. Unemployment funds are provided by state and federal governments, so investigations fall under the control of agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he said.
A few weeks ago, the federal Department of Labor announced $100 million to help states combat fraud. The monies are used to detect and prevent fraud, and recover illegally gained unemployment payments, including supplemental programs created under the CARES Act. Massachusetts stood to receive about $2.4 million.
Victims of identify fraud should do anything within their power to protect their personal identification, Pighetti said. That includes safeguarding information in cellphones, computers and online business activity, such as electronic banking.
The challenge is that hackers are always looking for an advantage, and are often a step ahead of authorities.
“Every time a firewall is created, hackers work around it,” Pighetti said.
The Jennings reported fraudulent claims using the DUA’s secure online form. Calls can also be made to the DUA customer service department at 877-626-6800.
With everyone’s data floating around the online universe, John Jennings said he isn’t surprised breaches are commonplace.
Ultimately, using cash instead of logging onto the computer could be a simple way to protect oneself against identity theft. Pighetti referred to himself as a “cash guy,” because he pulls out his wallet and plunks down bills whenever he can. It removes any chance his personal information can be used illegally.
“The only way to protect yourself is don’t do anything online,” Pighetti said.
Henry Schwan is a multimedia journalist for the Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] or 508-626-3964. Follow him on Twitter @henrymetrowest.