Gephardt: Identity thieves stealing unemployment benefits

By Matt Gephardt, KSL TV | Posted - Nov. 23, 2020 at 9:51 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Millions of dollars are being paid out in unemployment benefits, but that money is not always going to the right people.

Identity thieves are stealing money meant for out-of-work Americans, so what's being done to fight the crime?

It has been an especially challenging job for the men and women who distribute unemployment benefits with so many people out of work. That demand has opened the door for bad guys to slip through the cracks of an overburdened system.

"Unfortunately, bad actors kind of know how to jump in on many of these areas," said Mike Lemberger, Visa's chief risk officer.

He said the theft of unemployment benefits has been a big source of theft throughout the year.

"With the stimulus packages that have gone into your unemployment and unemployment fraud insurance, we're certainly seeing more and more fraud kind of come into the ecosystem," said Lemberger.

It's not a particularly complicated scheme. Using the Social Security numbers of real Americans, cybercriminals are simply applying for unemployment and then waiting for the money to roll in.

"They actually are going and signing up on their (victim's) behalf. And … the individual might not even know it," Lemberger explained.

That's the bad news.

The good news is here in Utah, officials think they are doing a pretty good job at weeding out the crooks.

"We are doing better than most states," Kevin Burt, who leads Utah's Unemployment Insurance Division, told KSL.

They actually are going and signing up on their (victim's) behalf. And … the individual might not even know it.

–Mike Lemberger, Visa's chief risk officer

He said they are diligent in making sure the person applying for benefits is who they say they are – even with so many Utahns suddenly in need of unemployment this year.

"Yeah, we had this big demand. We had these new programs. But we didn't want to sacrifice integrity," Burt said.

Extremely strict measures can backfire. For example, KSL reported early in the pandemic that some Utahns who legitimately qualified for unemployment were forced to wait weeks, or months, to get the benefits that they desperately needed.

In reacting to Visa's concern about cyber crooks swiping unemployment benefits, Burt defended his agency's decision to be diligent.

"We certainly never sacrificed integrity for speed," said Burt. "And we talked early on that some of our processing was delayed but that is because we wanted to make sure integrity was there."

If you suspect you are a victim of unemployment fraud your first call should go to the Department of Workforce Services. Then contact the three credit bureaus and check your credit reports. Chances are if identity thieves have claimed unemployment in your name, they have enough information about you to open new lines of credit in your name, too.

Matt Gephardt


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