Have you received an unsolicited debit card in the mail? Or a letter seeking extra details for an application for unemployment insurance that you do not recall filing?

You may be among the thousands of people who have fallen victim to unemployment-related identity fraud. The problem emerged last year as state employment systems were straining to process a crush of claims during the coronavirus pandemic. The fraud persists even as authorities try to crack down on it and as expanded pandemic unemployment benefits are set to expire, identity theft experts say. Authorities estimate that billions of dollars in unemployment aid have been lost to improper payments and fraud.

“It’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon,” said Meghan Land, executive director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group that tracks data breaches that expose sensitive personal information.

The federal government announced plans in August to modernize state unemployment systems to help reduce fraud. But it remains too easy for criminals to pilfer personal information elsewhere and use it to steal someone’s identity, Land said.

“Pandemic unemployment benefits provided a major opportunity for identity criminals, but the underlying problems that caused this wave of fraud haven’t changed and won’t go away when these particular benefits end,” she said.

Eva Velasquez, president and chief executive of the Identity Theft Resource Center, which assists victims, said the group still receives daily calls about the fraud. In some cases, callers had lost a job and applied for legitimate benefits, but their claims were denied because someone else had fraudulently received payments in their names.


In recent months, federal authorities have charged people in numerous states with fraud, accusing them of applying for benefits using stolen identities.

In some cases, the criminals are believed to be part of networks using information that was stolen, possibly in large data breaches. In May, federal agents arrested a Nigerian national, accusing him of obtaining about $350,000 in unemployment benefits through the Washington State Employment Security Department with the stolen identities of more than 100 state residents. A search of his email files turned up thousands of bank account and credit card numbers as well as driver’s license information and income tax returns, according to court documents. The defendant pleaded not guilty, and a trial is scheduled for February, according to court filings.

The schemes often direct payments to online bank accounts or to debit cards, which many states use to pay jobless benefits. The cards are usually mailed to an address where the criminals or their accomplices can receive them. A man in Michigan was charged last year with using stolen identities to receive about $150,000 in fraudulent benefits from the state of Pennsylvania. He is accused of having debit cards mailed to addresses in Michigan, withdrawing the cash from ATMs and using some of the money to buy a $45,000 Rolex watch. A lawyer for the defendant said he had not yet entered a plea in the case, which is pending in Michigan federal court.

In some cases, people have received debit cards in the mail from a different state, but with their own names on it. In those cases, it is possible something went awry with the criminal’s scheme, Velasquez said. The card may have been intended to be delivered to an address where an accomplice could retrieve it.

Despite the continuing legal offensive, thieves continue to devise new ways to trick people and state unemployment systems. “They’re not giving up,” Velasquez said.

In August, the Federal Trade Commission warned of a new phishing scheme in which victims receive text messages, purportedly from their state workforce agency, asking them to click on a link to verify or update information by providing personal information like Social Security numbers.


The texts have targeted people in multiple states, including Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Illinois, the commission said. The information can be used to steal jobless benefits or used in other identity-based fraud, like opening bank or credit card accounts.

Here are some questions and answers about identity theft and unemployment fraud:

What should I do if I receive an unsolicited debit card or benefits letter?

The Federal Trade Commission recommends reporting the fraud by contacting the state agency that sent the letter or card. Then, follow the agency’s instructions. You will probably be directed to file a police report with your local department and submit a copy to the state workforce agency. The FTC also suggests informing your employer. Keep copies of the documents you submit and any responses you receive.

The federal Labor Department has published a list of state workforce agencies so you can be confident you are calling or emailing a legitimate office. The department also suggests filing a complaint with the National Center for Disaster Fraud at the Justice Department.

Can freezing my credit files help?

The FTC recommends freezing your credit if you are the victim of unemployment identity fraud. It is a good idea to do that even if you have not been a victim, Velasquez said. Given the large number of data breaches in recent years, she said, it is likely that at least part of your personal information has been compromised. “People really should understand that their identity credentials are out there,” she said.

A freeze prevents someone from illegally opening most accounts in your name. You can “thaw” the freeze by taking a few extra steps if you want to apply for credit yourself.


Freezes are not totally foolproof. Certain inquiries, like those for insurance, are not covered by the freeze. But they can reduce your risk.

To place free freezes on your credit, contact the three major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.

What if I do not want to freeze my credit?

As an alternative, you can place a fraud alert on your credit files. This means lenders must take extra steps to verify that you actually applied for that loan. Placing a fraud alert works a bit differently, according to the FTC. You need to contact just one credit bureau, which will notify the other two.

And you should check your credit reports regularly for suspicious activity. During the pandemic, the bureaus are offering free weekly access to your credit files at annualcreditreport.com.