What to know about the surge of unemployment fraud in WA

As state officials chase after fraudsters, here’s some information on what’s going on and how you can protect yourself.

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As businesses close across Washington state, unemployment claims have rapidly risen. Among claims that are legitimate, state officials have noticed scammers attempting to make fraudulent unemployment claims with stolen identities. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut)

Washington state appears to be a primary target of recent attacks on unemployment insurance system across the country. You probably won’t know if your Social Security number is being used to make a fraudulent claim, but there are ways to protect yourself and the system.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney Brian Moran of the Western District of Washington reported that his office has been working with federal law enforcement agencies since early in the COVID-19 pandemic response to prevent and stop fraud. Finding the criminals was just the first step. 

“The other part is for the state to address and fix the vulnerabilities in their system, and I am advised that they are working to address that part of the problem,” he said.

Suzan LeVine, commissioner of the Washington state Employment Security Department (ESD), says there has been no data breach in the Washington system. People’s personal information was likely exposed through some other past data breach and later bought by fraudsters to file illegitimate claims. 

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s going on? 

The Employment Security Department, which processes unemployment insurance applications and handles benefits in Washington state, has seen a rash of “imposter fraud” incidents. Individuals or groups have stolen people’s personal and employment information and used their Social Security number, address and birthdate to apply for unemployment benefits. You can become a victim of unemployment fraud whether or not you’re employed. 

More than a million people have applied for unemployment in Washington since the statewide coronavirus lockdown was announced in March. So far, hundreds in Washington have been identified as targets in this wave of imposter fraud. Millions of dollars in unemployment benefits could be lost to illegitimate claims. Washington state officials have identified at least $1.6 million in fraudulent claims in April, according to an ESD statement. The department has seen a significant uptick in fraudulent claims since then, but an ESD spokesperson said updated numbers have not yet been released. 

More COVID business: Language gaps make it difficult to seek help.

How will I know if I'm a fraud victim if I’m not unemployed?

An ESD spokesperson said some people have discovered false claims made with their personal information after trying to apply for unemployment benefits. Others have discovered it after receiving a notice in the mail from the ESD about a claim being processed that they did not submit. 

You can do your own fraud check — and potentially prevent a fraudulent claim — by proactively setting up an ESD account online. Do this by visiting the ESD website here and clicking “Create new account.” When setting up your account, you’ll be asked for various personal information, including Social Security number and birthdate. 

Make sure you go directly to the ESD website. Don’t click on a link in an email or on social media. Fraudsters sometimes use fake links to capture the private information that enables them to file for unemployment in someone else’s name. 

If you haven’t already applied for unemployment benefits, you should be able to set up the account. If you get a notice saying that the Social Security number you entered is already in use, that could be an indication of a fraudulent claim. 

What should I do if it happens to me? 

You should report the issue to the ESD. You can do this online or over the phone (1-800-246-9763), although the ESD currently recommends making the report online if possible because phone lines are currently backed up from a large influx of calls.

The ESD also recommends that you file a police report, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, request and review your free credit reports for fraud and close any accounts you know have been tampered with. You can find more information about these recommendations on the ESD website and on the Washington attorney general’s webpage on dealing with identity theft or fraud

Will this impact my unemployment benefits? 

Payments will likely be delayed while the ESD verifies your information. You might also be asked to submit personal information to the ESD to verify your identity. 

What are state officials doing about this? 

In a recent statement, the ESD said that it is holding payments for a day or two to check authenticity, as well as hiring more fraud investigators and staff to answer questions on the department's fraud hotline (800-246-9763). It also plans to make changes to its system that might require some people already in the system to verify their identity or provide more information. 

I’m not a victim of fraud. Is there anything I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to me? 

As with most fraud, the best way to avoid it involves making sure you give personal information only to official websites. Don’t share personal information over the phone or in an email with someone you do not know. Be sure you are on an official government website if you’re applying for unemployment (the Washington unemployment system website is ESD.wa.gov). Applying for unemployment benefits is free, so you should never be asked for a payment. If ESD agents call, you should ask them for identifying information. If you are still unsure if the call is legitimate, you can ask for their name and verify it with the ESD via the fraud hotline (800-246-9763), although the department is likely backlogged on calls.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.