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DIGGING DEEPER: Scammers hit residents with fraudulent unemployment claims

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TUCSON (KVOA) - COVID-19 has left many people without a job.

During a time when people have been trying to file legitimate unemployment claims, a new concern has been on the rise.

Scammers have been searching for your personal information to file a fraudulent unemployment claim in an effort to try and get benefits funded by your tax dollars.

"My biggest concern is that somebody is getting unemployment benefits in my name and I'm going to have to pay this back," Lynda Geyer, a Southern Arizona resident said.

Geyer said she had not filed for unemployment insurance benefits so she was shocked when she received a Bank of America credit card in the mail from Arizona's Department of Economic Security.

"I've never been unemployed in Arizona since we moved here," Geyer said. "I'm still working."

In a statement to News 4 Tucson, a spokesperson for AZ DES said, "This is likely a case of identity theft and a subsequent fraudulent claim for unemployment insurance benefits, and not a scam."

From March 2020 until now, the department confirmed nearly 1,500 cases of unemployment fraud.

Alex Juarez, an AARP spokesperson said the massive demand for unemployment benefits has given scammers a window of opportunity to falsely apply for real unemployment programs.

"Many of these persons are getting their identity stolen or their social security number stolen," Juarez said.

That was exactly what happened to Mike Dolan, a Southern Arizona resident when someone stole his identity in 2012.

"I have an idea that I fell for a phishing scam and I supplied my social security number," Dolan said.

Years later, it appears someone has used his identity again. This time to apply for the same state unemployment benefits Geyer received.

"I have no intention of activating this card," Dolan said.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office said it received several complaints about fraudulent applications. AZ DES said fraudulent approvals have not been a result of any breach of the department's information.

Even if your identity has not been targeted, it seems like all Arizona taxpayers have been scammed. After all, Arizona unemployment benefits are funded by taxpayer dollars.

So why was the state sending out benefits before verifying applicants?

In a statement to News 4 Tucson, a spokesperson for AZ DES said:

"Individuals who fraudulently file unemployment claims using someone else’s identity often provide bank account information that is not verifiable. Previously, in order to expedite claim processing for eligible individuals who had accidentally entered the wrong direct deposit information, an electronic payment card was automatically issued to the address used in the claim. This protocol was recently modified and payment will not automatically be re-issued via Electronic Payment Card (EPC) for cases within our PUA system. DES will prepare and send notice to the claimant address on file that the payment was rejected, directing the claimant to contact the department for assistance or to ensure direct deposit information. From March to present, there have been approximately 7,700 referrals of potential unemployment fraud, of which 1,492 have been confirmed and 770 have been ruled out. The Department has taken additional efforts to increase cross-matching with credible sources to verify identity, expand queries to flag suspicious claims for further review, and further adopt nationally recommended fraud detection strategies that analyze inconsistencies in claims. DES consistently balances the need to provide benefits to citizens with the need to ensure the integrity of our programs while preventing fraud. Individuals who suspect UI fraud can learn more about fraud and identity theft, as well as submit a report to DES, here. When reporting fraud, individuals should provide identifying information in the web form that will help us locate the claim in our systems. This includes SSN, full name (as it appears on the documents received from the UI program), and mailing address where the documents were received. We are in the process of updating this webform to better guide victims of identity theft in reporting potential fraud. Additionally, if someone believes they were the victim of identity theft, we encourage them to go to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) identity theft website, identitytheft.gov, to report and protect themselves from further victimization. They are also advised to monitor their credit report for any other fraudulent activity that may come as a result of identity theft."

If you have received a credit card but did not apply for it, do not activate it. Instead, report it to the FTC or state.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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