When Brian Slish opened his mail recently at his home in Sammamish, he was surprised to find a letter from Washington state, saying his claim for unemployment benefits was under review.
Millions of Americans have abruptly lost their jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic’s economic shutdown, but Slish is not one of them. As general manager of Honda of Kirkland, he’s continued working, as the car dealership’s service department was considered an essential business under Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order.
Slish says he’s alarmed someone apparently filed for unemployment in his name, using personal information to submit a claim to the state Employment Security Department (ESD) on April 19. He said similar false claims were filed in the names of his wife and two coworkers — all still employed.
“It’s full-on identity theft,” Slish said. “I am sure they are taking advantage of the overwhelming of the system.”
His story is not isolated. As Washington grapples with a tsunami of legitimate unemployment claims — more than 100,000 last week — the state also is seeing a rise in attempts by fraudsters to siphon off a portion of the benefits. Such phony claims have been submitted in the names of workers at school districts, nonprofits, the local chamber of commerce and The Seattle Times, among others.
In Bellingham Public Schools, for example, 46 employees out of a total of approximately 1,200 recently have had potentially fraudulent claims filed on their behalf as of May 8, said spokesperson Dana Smith.
Slish and others with claims filed in their names say despite days of attempts they’ve been unable to get through to an ESD fraud hotline, which has been flooded with calls.
During a news conference Thursday, Suzi LeVine, the ESD commissioner, acknowledged a “dramatic increase” in apparent fraud attempts. These included cases where people used false information on their own claims as well as cases of identify theft by third parties.
She attributed the rise both to the massive volume of new claims during the pandemic — currently, nearly 20 times higher than normal times — but also to the extra generosity of the benefits: Thanks to federal stimulus funds, a weekly payment of $600 has been temporarily added on top of regular unemployment checks.
“It makes a very attractive target for fraudsters,” LeVine said, adding that similar surges in attempted fraud are being seen “all across the country.”
ESD did not release figures on how many fraudulent claims may have been filed. But at Thursday’s news conference, LeVine acknowledged the percentage of potentially fraudulent claims, though “it seems to be relatively in line with the [higher claim] volume that we are seeing,” nonetheless represented “a slight increase over ordinary times.”
In an email, spokesman Nick Demerice said the department is “digging into the data” to figure how many of the “fraud flags” are from “actual bad actors” versus people making typos or other errors.
In a subsequent interview, Demerice was unable to specify what percentage of fraud claims the ESD sees in ordinary times, or what fraud typically costs the agency, but said the agency hopes to provide that data next week.
Demerice said the ESD is expanding its 24-person Office of Special Investigations, which examines cases of potential fraud.
And LeVine acknowledged that investigating the potential fraud cases has added to the workload of an agency stretched by the historic surge in claims, and requires staff time.
“Does it add more work? Yes. Could those people be doing other things? Yes, but again with a dedicated fraud team, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily slowing down claims processes,” LeVine said.
The surge in potential fraud cases has highlighted problems that workers and employers are having reaching the ESD.
When someone filed a false claim last month in the name of an employee at Bridge Disability Ministries, the organization tried to notify ESD right away, to no avail.
“We did everything. We faxed. We emailed and called. The calls — we just had to hang up. The wait times were incredible,” said Brenne Schario, executive director of the Bellevue-based nonprofit, which supplies wheelchairs, walkers and other medical equipment to people with disabilities.
Ditto for Eric Fickeisen, a Bellevue software consultant, currently “very gainfully employed,” who this week received a letter similar to the one Slish received, but was unable to get through on the ESD’s fraud line.
“I know those guys are swamped,” Fickeisen said. “But the fraud line is broken.”
Finally, after sending emails to the ESD’s general media email “and everybody in the governor’s cabinet, since those were the only other email addresses I could find,” Fickeisen was notified by email Friday afternoon that the ESD had assigned his case “to an investigator as it appears you may possibly be a victim of fraud.”
An ESD spokesperson said the agency’s fraud website did allow people with fraud concerns to contact the fraud team but acknowledged the online contact process “was a bit confusing” and noted the fraud team’s direct email firstname.lastname@example.org is now posted prominently on the agency’s fraud website, which also outlines the reporting process.
Schario said ESD never acknowledged her fraud report but kept sending letters to try to verify the unemployment claim, with the organization responding that it was not valid. She said she’s grateful ESD seeks to verify claims before paying them out.
Alan Fisco, president of The Seattle Times Company, said 13 employees of the newspaper received letters from the state informing them of unemployment claims they never filed. The list included Fisco, who said he was told to file an identity theft report with ESD.
“I have called numerous times, but was never successful getting through to anyone,” he wrote in an email. He said the company has been told to send information about the fraudulent claims via email.
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce also was notified this week that an unemployment claim had been submitted in the name of one of its employees who is still working.
Jane Billbe, senior vice president of operations for the chamber, said she knew right away the claim was not legitimate but worries other businesses may not be seeing letters sent by ESD.
“I think it’s unnerving to think of all the fraudulent claims that are just sitting in mailboxes,” she said.
It’s not clear how fraudsters are obtaining the substantial amount of personal information they would need to file a claim, but it may often be connected with data breaches at other websites. For example, one person who contacted the Times said a family member named in a fraudulent unemployment claim this week had also been a victim of the 2017 Equifax data breach.
In such a situation, Demerice said, “the information you would need to file an unemployment claim may have been exposed to another party.”
It’s also not clear how easily a fraudster could obtain money from the state, as most unemployment claims are sent via direct deposit to bank accounts of workers. A smaller number can receive benefits on electronic debit cards.
But in at least one case reported to The Times, personal information on the state’s website appears to have been altered. In this case, an employee who had previously filed a legitimate unemployment claim learned of a fraudulent claim in her name. When she checked her state account online, however, she discovered that some of the personal data, such as her phone number and email, had been altered, according to an account relayed to the Times by a co-worker. Further, when the employee tried correct the data online herself, the system wouldn’t allow it, the co-worker said.
Demerice said the department has been “getting a lot of questions, ‘Was your data breached?’ And as far as we know, no.”
Demerice said the department has numerous safeguards to prevent unemployment benefits from being paid out on fraudulent claims, although he declined to elaborate because doing so could “provide a road map for fraud.”
“It definitely doesn’t seem like the most fruitful way to run a scam,” said Billbe. Still, she noted employers can be hit with higher unemployment insurance premiums based on the number of unemployment claims attributed to the business or organization, so keeping those numbers accurate is important.
Schario said she’s seen acts of kindness, with neighbors helping neighbors during the coronavirus pandemic, and finds it “just so disconcerting” that some would take advantage of the situation. “You see all these good things happening during the crisis, but there are these rotten apples that do things as well,” she said.