Scammers feed on safety net

WESTFIELD – A recent spate of identity fraud scams – in the city and apparently across the nation – seems to illustrate how a safety net intended to protect citizens can be made into a platform for malefactors to practice fraud against government agencies without regard to the impact on those same citizens.
City police have recently received reports of letters of approval for unemployment benefits sent by the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance to residents who are employed and have not made application for unemployment benefits.
One resident reported on-line to police “I received a letter from the Department of Revenue stating that my application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was accepted. I did not submit any form or application, as I am still currently employed.”
Det. Jason Williams, tasked by the Westfield Police Department to investigate cases of fraud, reports that “probably a dozen” residents have so far reported receiving a similar “notice of monetary determination” advising them that their claims for unemployment compensation have been approved.
But the residents never filed the claims which have been approved, he reports.
Instead criminals, who have access to personal information – principally social security numbers – of unwitting residents, filed fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits in the name of persons who had no idea that their identities had been used to claim those benefits. The criminals filing the false claims can then direct the payments to be sent to addresses of convenience.
And, he said, the scam is not limited to Westfield. “This is huge scale” he said, “I think this happened in a lot of states” and may have been organized to take advantage of the flood of claims made to unemployment agencies across the nation in response to job losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said that his best guess is that the vital information needed by the criminals involved has been gleaned from past data breaches at various commercial and federal agencies.
While residents may not yet have suffered any monetary losses, Williams recommends that those who learn that they may have been unwillingly involved in the scheme should take several steps to “save a lot of head aches down the road.” He said, for example, monies paid by the government to a scammer who used another’s social security number could be reported to the IRS as income for the person whose identification was used, resulting in months of effort to prove otherwise..
He said that a victim’s first step should be to make an on-line report to the Westfield police to create a record of the fraud but said additional steps are also necessary.
Police have prepared has written a standard response to be sent to victims who report the scam. It points out that, because the scam is a national issue, the city police cannot meaningfully investigate it but residents should take additional steps to protect themselves
His message recommends that the second step for residents who become aware that the they may have been targeted for the scam is to make a report to the state unemployment website at https://www.mass.gov/forms/unemployment-fraud-reporting-form. Williams points out that, although the unemployment office may be reached by phone, contact via the website will be much quicker.
Next, involved residents should make a report to the Federal Trade Commission at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft where, Williams said, victims will be directed to IdentityTheft.gov.
Additionally, potential victims are urged check their credit reports and notify the various credit agencies to flag their accounts to prevent criminals from opening credit account in their names.

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