Residents throughout the Upper Cape have been opening up their mailboxes during the past few months to find a letter from the Department of Unemployment Assistance letting them know that their benefits request claim has been received. The problem is, many of the people getting the letters never applied for the benefits.
Here is what is happening: Someone has used the resident’s personal information to file a bogus unemployment claim. The culprit then attempts to redirect benefit funds to a bank account the scammer has access to. The scammers are hoping their victims are not carefully opening all of their mail so they will not detect the false filing until it is too late.
Upper Cape towns have seen a huge spike in the number of these scams reported in recent weeks.
In the Sandwich police logs last week alone, 18 residents reported being a victim of the scam. This week, another 16 made the logs. And that is just one town. Many other towns across the state and across the country are reporting similar numbers.
Emalie Gainey, press secretary for the Office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, said the state has received hundreds of complaints from residents who have been targeted by the scams.
The Federal Trade Commission currently reports that 28,430 employment or tax-related fraud cases have been reported during the calendar year and that 86,265 cases of fraud related to government documents and benefits have been reported during the same time period.
Sandwich Police Chief Peter N. Wack, who was targeted himself, said that in cases when people work for a smaller employer (which is also notified by the state when a claim is filed), the scam can be caught by the company’s human resources department. The problem might be more pronounced in a larger corporation where the human resources department might not know offhand if an individual is still employed.
Chief Wack is one of several members of the Sandwich Police Department who have been targeted in the scam. He said that if a resident believes he or she have been a victim of the scam, there are immediate steps that need to be taken.
The steps include going to the state’s website (mass.gov/info-details/report-unemployment-benefits-fraud) to report the scam, placing a credit freeze with each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion), adding a fraud alert in the victim’s credit file, and contacting his or her local police to file a fraud report. Those filing the report should ask for a copy to provide to creditors and credit agencies.
Scam victims should also change passwords on their email, banking, and other personal accounts, make a list of credit card companies, banks, and other financial institutions where they do business and tell them they have been a victim of identity theft, and ask them to put a fraud alert on their accounts, Chief Wack said.
Chief Wack said freezing credit is easy to do and that people should do it even if they have not been targeted. The freeze would have to be removed if someone was going to apply for a loan but otherwise, he said, it could just remain in place.
The Federal Trade Commission said that in a successful scam, the money is sent to accounts controlled by the scammer. However, in some cases the money will be sent to the victim.
“If this happens to you, the imposters may call, text, or email you to try to get you to send some or all of the money to them. They may pretend to be your state unemployment agency and say the money was sent by mistake,” the FTC said. “This is a money mule scam and participating in one could cause you more difficulties.”
Chief Wack said that if someone receives a debit card as a result of an unemployment scam, it is important not to activate it.
“Contact the bank and report it as fraud because it will affect your credit rating and financial status if you don’t,” he said.
As far as how scammers are accessing the personal information required to file a claim, Chief Wack said that several financial institutions he has spoken with have indicated that data breaches that happened in the past 10 years at corporations such as Target, Home Depot, and TJX Companies Inc. had resulted in the theft of personal information.
“Over the next handful of years they expected fraud claims to increase based on that data breach,” he said. “It affected millions of people and [the impact of the data breach] has started.”
Sandwich Treasurer William Jennings said other municipal workers, beside police, have been hit with the scam. He said he has handled well over 40 cases of this type of identity theft among employees in just the past few weeks, which he said represents a drastic increase. Mr. Jennings said he would prefer not to get into the specifics in terms of exactly how many of these scams have been reported to him.
Seeing reports of record numbers of unemployment claims as a result of people losing their jobs during the pandemic, Mr. Jennings said that he wonders how much the fraudulent claims have been inflating those numbers and how many of the reported unemployment claims are legitimate.
Given the nature of the scam, the best way to stay protected is to stay vigilant about financial accounts, he said.
“I would recommend changing your banking and investments passwords regularly,” Mr. Jennings said. “Also to check your credit report a couple times a year, as well.”
He said people should be careful about which websites they visit and the personal information that they give out. He personally subscribes to LifeLock, which he said monitors those issues for him.
However, these methods are not necessarily foolproof.
“Some of this is obviously out of our hands,” he said, adding that oftentimes these identity theft issues arise when large companies suffer data breaches resulting in the theft of their customer’s private and financial data.
Chief Wack said anyone who suspects they are a target or victim of a scam should contact their local police department. He said having a documented police report about the fraudulent claim could help legitimize the incident if a creditor or company challenges the claim at any point.