The COVID-19 pandemic has put more than a million people out of work in Washington, sending a tsunami of claims to the state unemployment office — some of which, it turns out, have been fake.

Since the system has been overwhelmed by legitimate claims, fraudsters have been taking advantage, siphoning off a portion of the benefits by filing phony claims using other people’s names and personal information.

The problem has already complicated efforts to get financial relief to workers laid off during the pandemic. It’s gotten so bad that state officials said Thursday they’re stopping unemployment payments for two days while they try to block the fraudulent activity. Suspected scammers bled off $1.6 million in benefits between March and April, according to the ESD, which says those estimates might rise farther.

So, what should you do if someone uses your name and information to file a phony unemployment claim?

You’ll find yourself reporting it to a lot of different organizations. This may seem redundant, but the Seattle Police Department says it’s important because more reports mean more support for law enforcement to pursue cases.

If you believe you’ve been a victim of this kind of unemployment fraud, Seattle police cyber-crime investigators recommend taking these steps to protect your financial identity and credit history:

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  1. Get organized. As you go through this process, keep a file folder or journal with information from the incident and your reports, including any case numbers. Hang onto any notes, copies of emails and other documentation. If you face any identity issues or find inaccuracies on your credit history sometime in the future, you’ll need to reference this paper trail.
  2. Contact your employer’s human resources department to document the incident.
  3. Contact the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) at 800-246-9763 or via their online form. You’ll need the following information handy so they can verify your identity:

    • The last four digits of your social security number.

    • Your date of birth.

    • Your address.

    • Your current phone number.

    • Information on how you learned a a claim was filed on your behalf.

  4. File an online or nonemergency police report with the law enforcement agency whose jurisdiction you live in. If you live in Seattle, you can file an online report here. A tip from Seattle police: “Some government services and accommodations are available to victims of identity theft that are not available to the general public, such as getting certain public records sealed.”
  5. Contact the three major credit bureaus: Experian (1-888-397-3742), TransUnion (1-800-680-7289) and Equifax (1-888-766-0008).

    • Get free credit reports by visiting annualcreditreport.com or calling 1-877-322-8228. Check your credit activity at least once a year. As a victim of identity theft, you have the right to check it monthly if you choose.

    • Tell the credit bureaus a fraudulent unemployment claim was made using your identity. Give them the case number from your police report.

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    • Have one of the credit bureaus place a fraud alert on your identity. If you don’t have an upcoming major purchase, such as a home, consider freezing your credit. These services are free, and both make it harder for someone to open new accounts in your name.

  6. Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). File a short report with the FTC and give them the case number from your local police report. Consider setting up an IRS account with your Social Security number to help prevent criminals from creating an account using your identity. Another option is to lock your Social Security number to guard against IRS tax fraud, which police warn could be the next wave of cyber-crime during this pandemic.

Fraudsters see opportunities to target us in these uncertain times. Here are their most popular schemes and how we can protect ourselves. 
— FOR USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY SLUGGED TECH FIX BY BRIAN X. CHEN FOR MAY 13, 2020 — ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. — XNYT56
Don’t let fraudster rats take your identity and money; here’s a guide to popular scams

Protecting your data and identity going forward

Seattle police cyber-crime detectives recommend taking additional steps to secure your and your family’s data. In a blotter post, police linked to sites that, while not associated with the city of Seattle, “are trusted resources that other victims have used successfully”:

  • Intel Techniques: The workbook linked on the right side of the website will walk you through freezing your credit and removing your data from data brokers and “stalker sites.” The site also offers a “Privacy Checklist,” a printable guide to securing devices, accounts and personal data. Police say you can use the free guides without buying anything.
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation: This nonprofit offers several guides for privacy and security.
  • Most attackers use data obtained from previous internet breaches of hotel chains, entertainment services and widely used digital productivity tools. This is why you should never use the same password twice. Use a password manager and multifactor authentication (a secondary security code) on your most important accounts.
  • Watch out for phishing emails, vishing fraud calls, and mail and package theft, which are commonly used to steal someone’s identity.
  • Be wary of free apps/offers, which could be mining your data.

These guides also are trusted by the Seattle Police Department:

Seattle Times staff reporters Jim Brunner and Paul Roberts contributed to this report.

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