Unemployment scams surge, elected official falls victim

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- During the pandemic, unemployment claims climbed to an all-time high. At the same time, so did the number of unemployment scams.

There are so many scams out there. Some go after people who are trying to get unemployment benefits, but others target people who have never applied for unemployment.

When Milwaukee County’s Human Resources Department contacted County Board Supervisor Sequanna Taylor and told her the Department of Workforce Development was asking about her unemployment claim, she was confused. As an elected official, she’s had a job throughout the pandemic.

“I was like maybe they’re making a mistake by contacting me,” Supervisor Taylor said.

It wasn’t a mistake but it was fraud, and confusion quickly turned to concern.

“It seemed like if somebody had enough information to even put in a claim, they must have some of my personal information,” Supervisor Taylor said.

What happened to Supervisor Taylor is happening across the state and country. Scammers are using stolen personal information to apply for unemployment benefits.

“Bad actors see places where maybe they can take advantage of a system that’s being overwhelmed,” said Amy Barrilleaux, director of communications for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

In 2020, Wisconsin paid out more than $4.5 million in fraudulent unemployment claims, which is actually just a small fraction of the more than $4.8 billion the state paid in total unemployment benefits. The Department of Workforce Development warns there are also cases where criminals use your information to apply for benefits in other states. If that happens, you have to contact that state’s department of workforce development.

“I can tell you for one, definitely, unemployment fraud was on the rise,” said Francesca Johnson with the state’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Johnson says people need to safeguard all their information, including birthdate, address, phone number and things that could answer security question answers, like your mother’s maiden name.

And don’t just assume something is junk mail.

“If you receive W2s or 1099s that are from a company that you didn’t perform any services for, look into that, and in general, read your mail. Dispute and question any fraudulent activity,” Johnson said.

If you are a victim, Johnson says file a police report to start the paper trail, then contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Employment scams are also going beyond using stolen identities. They’re also targeting people who actually apply for unemployment.

The DWD IT helpline is overwhelmed by people impersonating real claimants, trying to get passwords or account information changed. There’s also a massive effort by scammers on social media.

“We had to suspend commenting on social media because people are posing as us, looking like DWD asking for information,” Barrilleaux said.

There are fake DWD pages popping up and Facebook is overrun by posts from criminals trying to get people to click a link or call a number and give out personal information.

To combat the barrage of fraud attacks during the pandemic, the DWD upgraded servers and added new login security measures and requirements to create accounts.

“It is amazing, when you are targeted by what could be international rings, the kinds of things that are tried and the kinds of defenses you have to have up to protect against that,” Barrilleaux said.

The DWD warns about the latest scams on its website. This month it’s a spoofed text and a phishing email.

The DWD says people should rely on the secure direct message system in your unemployment portal.

“This day and age it’s best to be suspicious,” Barrilleaux said.

Supervisor Taylor says she’s grateful the scammers in her case didn’t get any money, but she’s frustrated these criminals are slowing down the process for people in need.

“To be out here scamming when other people have been waiting for months to actually get money to feed their family and pay their bills, that’s what kind of hurt me more,” Supervisor Taylor said.

A lot of these scams come from overseas, it’s very hard to catch the people responsible.

In 2020, the DWD was only able to refer eight cases to district attorneys for prosecution.

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