The wheels of government move slowly, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. Government offices were closed, operating on shortened hours or by appointment only, and most often at reduced staffing levels.
Typically, when the government does move quickly to address a problem, money in huge amounts is thrown at it as a solution. Chaos frequently ensues in the rush to help. Unanticipated circumstances spring up, and safeguards are overlooked.
Scammers, however, move quickly when they see chaos present an opportunity to rip off people, government or organizations.
In what has most likely become the most massive scam opportunity ever, scammers raced to exploit the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
According to ID.me, a company that provides states with identity verification support tools, the U.S. government has suffered losses to the tune of an estimated $200 billion.
Since its inception, scammers have used bots to file bogus claims for unemployment insurance benefits covered by the Federal PUA, equating to 68% of the nation’s 164 million workforce.
An article on the non-profit newsroom website ProPublica.org demonstrates how widespread the fraud extends, citing examples of a Bronx man who allegedly received $1.5 million in just 10 months, a California real estate broker that copped more than $500,000 within six months and a Nigerian government official accused of pocketing over $350,000 in less than six weeks. The broker has pleaded guilty, while the Bronx man and Nigerian official have pleaded not guilty.
Recently, at BBB, we have gotten a rash of calls from consumers regarding a letter they received from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services telling them their PUA benefits are expiring. The letter is legitimate. Unfortunately, the letter’s recipients have never filed for unemployment benefits. Their identity was used when scammers filed bogus PUA claims.
Not only have their identities been compromised, but severe tax liability problems could affect those whose identities have been used.
Here is what you should do if you have received one of these letters from ODJFS:
• Call the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services hotline at 833-658-0394 or go online to unemployment.ohio.gov and press the “Report Identity Theft” button to report suspected unemployment fraud.
• Flag any fraudulent transactions with the three major credit reporting companies. Contact Equifax at 800-525-6285, Experian at 888-397-3742 and Trans Union at 800-680-7289. Put a 1-year free fraud alert on your credit reports. Also consider freezing your credit.
• Change passwords on bank and credit card and personal accounts as well as your email.
• If you received an ODJFS letter, ask your banks, credit card companies and other financial institutions to put a fraud alert on your account.
• If the letter is sent to your home but is not addressed to a person in your home, mark it “return to sender” and mail it back.
• Request an Identity Protection PIN from the IRS. It prevents someone else from filing a return with the taxpayer’s Social Security number.
• Address tax liability implications by following the IRS guidance to taxpayers on identity theft involving unemployment benefits. You can find it at j.mp/2ZvlWLZ.
Act quickly if you receive a letter from ODJFS. Assume scammers have access to your valuable personal information such as you Social Security number and financial information.
Reghan Winkler is executive director of the Better Business Bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at bbb.org/us/oh/lima.