EVANSTON — Evanston man James McDaniel was perplexed when, while sifting through his mail one day at lunch, he came across not one, but three, letters from the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services (DWS) Unemployment Insurance Office. He wasn’t unemployed and was in fact home from work on a lunch break.
“I probably would have just tossed it aside if it was just one letter,” said McDaniel, “but there were three of them, so I opened them.”
To his surprise, the letters stated his unemployment application had been approved and contained information on his workplace and other personal details.
Confused, McDaniel decided to stop by the Evanston DWS office to tell them there had been some kind of mistake. It was then he discovered he had become a victim of a recent form of identity theft that has proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic upheaval and since the passage of the federal CARES Act.
In mid-May, the U.S. Secret Service issued a warning about “massive fraud” against state unemployment insurance programs, perpetrated by a “well-organized Nigerian crime ring.” That warning said the fraud was resulting in “potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” and added, “the primary state targeted so far is Washington, although there is also evidence of attacks in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma … and Florida.” The other state being targeted is Wyoming.
Ty Stockton, communications manager for Wyoming DWS, confirmed there has been fraud occurring throughout the state and the Nigerian crime ring seems to be the largest one identified nationally so far.
Unlike Washington state, which has reportedly paid out more than a million dollars in claims, Stockton said the state has thus far not paid out a large amount of fraudulent claims because the fraud is being caught so quickly, but he urged people to be careful and pay attention to their mail.
“There are some unscrupulous characters taking advantage of the situation,” said Stockton, referring to the large numbers of people filing unemployment claims during the pandemic. “Those people are hurting and we’re trying to get claims processed and money to people as quickly as possible because they need it.”
“ We’re already stretched thin answering questions and processing so many claims,” said Stockton, “and now we’re adding extra steps to protect against fraud. It’s slowing down the process and could hang up some legitimate claims, especially if a fraudulent application has already been filed in someone’s name and then that person goes to file. That’s not fair to the people who really need that money.”
Stockton said some fraud appears to be occurring through social media, particularly through scammers reading Facebook comments on DWS pages that ask questions about unemployment. The scammer will then pose as a DWS representative and reach out to people through private messaging asking for identifying information.
“DWS staff will never reach out to people and ask for protected personal information through Facebook messenger,” said Stockton, urging people never to give out personal information through such messages.
A press release from DWS warned, “Scammers often target individuals who have filed unemployment insurance claims, though there is evidence that a large fraud operation is using stolen personal information from people who have not filed claims as well.”
Stockton said there’s no certainty as to why Wyoming has been targeted by the Nigerian ring but said it may have something to do with the state utilizing an online system to apply for benefits, which some other states do not use.
McDaniel, who has no idea how scammers obtained his information, has now had to contact credit reporting agencies and take other steps to safeguard his credit and personal information. He said it’s unnerving to know someone was able to get so much personal information to file a fraudulent claim, including his home address and place of employment.
For anyone, like McDaniel, who has not filed for unemployment but receives a letter in the mail regarding claims, DWS asks individuals to report it immediately. Businesses are also asked to pay attention to any documentation they may get showing employees who are still working that have filed for unemployment and report that immediately as well.