WARWICK, RI — National data breaches have left thousands of Rhode Islanders vulnerable to fraudulent unemployment claims this year, including 56 City Hall employees last week.
“Basically, I got a letter in the mail from the DLT saying my unemployment benefits were approved. I called the DLT and they were able to stop the claim in time and no money was issued to the scammer. I got lucky,” said Elizabeth Tufts, Media Coordinator for Mayor Frank Picozzi’s office.
Steven Rotondo, Warwick personnel director, said Warwick City Hall employees have been reporting similar stories since about two weeks after the CARES Act passed last year. The Act provided pandemic relief to Americans out of work during the continuing pandemic-spurred recession.
It also marked an opportunity for scammers to use data they had on people nationwide from various credit data breaches the past several years, said Robert A. Creamer, assistant detective commander with the RI State Police.
They seized it.
“As of last week we have seen close to 45,000 valid complaints,” so far this year, Creamer said.
Creamer confirmed the cases started getting reported to the State Police near the end of April 2020. He said the State Police have been working the case with the FBI, and that they don’t believe it’s the Department of Labor and Training that suffered a breach in security.
Nor is it a weakness at City Hall.
“Our IT people went through the system and said, ‘No, our networks have not been breached,” Rotondo said.
Rather, it’s the thousands of Rhode Islanders victimized, whose social security numbers and other personal information has been compromised and is now being used for the unemployment scam as thieves seek to use the coincidence of the CARES Act to use the information to scamp the DLT out of taxpayer money intended to help Americans.
Much as Tufts described, the scam begins when someone uses a person’s personal data, including their social security number, to file a false unemployment claim with the state, Creamer said.
The claim spurs a letter notice to the person about the claim in their name, and this is the crucial point of the scam for both the state and the person involved, Creamer said. If you receive a letter from the DLT about unemployment benefits you haven’t filed to receive, it’s important that you report it to the DLT immediately, and don’t ignore it, he said.
If notified early enough, the DLT can prevent any money from being paid to the scammers in your name, Creamer said. That will limit losses to fraud to the unemployment funds that other people need, he said, and it will also save the people whose information is being used to file fraudulent claims from having to sort out unemployment payments they never received during tax time.
If someone has allowed the scam to continue to the point where someone else is getting your unemployment benefits, you’re next hint will be a 1099 form for an amount you aren’t familiar with.
If you have filed for unemployment, that 1099 form will have to be checked against your bank records, Creamer said. But the DLT letter will be the first and best warning that something’s wrong.
“Don’t ignore it. Don’t throw it away,” Creamer said.
Prevention against data theft
Creamer said everyone should ask one of the three credit companies, Experian, Trans Union and Equfax, to freeze their credit, which will require them to alert you to anyone who attempts to use your social security number for credit.
He said people should also change their passwords frequently and to not use passwords that can be easily guessed using information the scammers likely have pirated about you.