Residents across Illinois are receiving notices in the mail concerning unemployment benefits they did not apply for, many of them containing a concerning amount of personal information.
Marengo resident Kevin Sprague said he was alarmed when he got a letter in the mail from the Illinois Department of Employment Security followed by a debit card equipped with unemployment benefits money he did not apply for, he said.
"I have never filed for unemployment. How would this even start?" Sprague questioned.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment has risen to a peak of 15.3% in Illinois and 13.3% nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment fraud has seemingly risen along with it across the state.
The state has identified more than 212,000 counts of unemployement fraud since the start of the pandemic, Illinois Department of Revenue spokesperson Sam Salustro said.
Yorkville Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sherri Farley learned she was a victim of unemployment fraud in August.
“I’m at work opening mail, and I got a notice from [IDES] and I was surprised because I hadn’t laid anybody off,” she said. “So when I opened it, I was even more surprised to see it was for me.”
Farley said she sent the notice back to IDES that day with a note alerting agency staff that the claim was fraudulent.
“I received notice a few weeks ago that the claim was denied because the claimant was still employed – not denied based on or even an acknowledgement made that it was a false identity claim,” she said. “It irks me to think that my record now contains history of me filing a claim to which I wasn’t entitled."
Farley said she is concerned about IDES' slow response after she reported the fradulent claim. She noted that she also immediately called the agency to be placed on a call-back list.
“Nearly three months later, that call never came, though I did occasionally receive texts thanking me for my patience," she said.
State Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, who owns a small business with offices in Oswego and Chicago, said he received a letter from IDES earlier this fall informing him that an unemployment claim had been filed in his name with his company in March.
Wheeler said he too has been trying to understand why IDES has been so slow to respond to victims of the fraudulent claims.
"What has to happen internally inside the Department of Employment Security? Do they need more resources? If I can't get a call back from the department, how is the average person going to?" he said. "I'm supposed to be working on their behalf, and I can't even get a call for myself or anybody else I'm trying to help."
Wheeler said he also received a letter confirming that his claim would be denied but never received a call back from IDES to discuss the fraudulent claim.
The IDES hotline used to report fraud is the same line that is used to file an unemployment claim, meaning the line receives an extremely large number of calls, a number that has only grown since the start of the pandemic, Salustro said in the statement.
"During most weeks in April, May and June, we received well over a million calls per week," Salustro said. "In May alone, we received over 6.2 million calls."
The department has since instituted a call-back model, where callers are placed in a queue and their calls are returned in the order received, he said in the statement.
On the letter that Sprague received, all of his personal and financial information was accurate with the exception of his first initial, he said. The form seemed to be an official document sent to him by the state and did not appear to be forged.
Farley said her biggest concern remains how the perpetrators gained access to her wage information.
“It was a shock to see they had that considering it’s not something widely out there," she said. "Other info they had such as name, address and Social Security number are more common and one would say more easily stolen. But, if I’m correct, just a few agencies have this large a number of people's accurate wage data.”
McHenry Police Department public affairs officer Patrick Polidori said the department has received many reports of this nature over the past two months.
"This is kind of the second wave of this. It started out a little bit earlier in the year," he said.
The McHenry Police Department saw a similar surge in fraud reports in August and put a notice on its Facebook page warning residents to be aware of this heightened threat, Polidori said.
"Between mid-July and mid-August we saw about 20 reports," he said in an emailed statement. "After that, it started to slow down. Come October and November, we have seen an uptick in these reports. At least 30 reports in that timeframe, with three in the last two days."
The city of McHenry does not typically report many instances of fraud so this represents a considerable uptick, Polidori said.
In Woodstock, Police Chief John Lieb said his department is receiving upwards of three to four reports of unemployment scam each day. He said even he has not heard much from IDES.
"In other realms when we get some type of victim and there's some sort of agency involved, there's usually some level of cooperation with the local law enforcement agency to help investigate and resolve the matter," Lieb said. "We're not clear on why that's not happening right now."
In an emailed statement, Salustro said that law enforcement does not need to contact IDES and, instead, should work with victims of unemployment fraud as they would victims of any other kind of identity theft.
About 80% of unemployment scams reported this year occurred within the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance system, which was passed as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and launched in May, Salustro said in an emailed statement. And this problem extends well beyond Illinois.
"In creating that new system and working to implement it across the country rather quickly, they left the system vulnerable to fraud," he said. "What we’re seeing around the country is that personal information that lives on the dark web due to various data breaches is being used in mass to file for unemployment claims under this system."
Sprague said as he began taking the recommended steps to rectify this issue, he started to realize the full scope of this increase in fraud in McHenry County.
"The bankers know about it. Our local police chief knew about it," he said. "I mean, this is a big problem."
Sprague said his wife also was affected by an unemployment scam shortly after he was.
"My fear is that it could affect my credit and someone could start spamming this credit card and that the IRS is going to think that I made this money next year," Sprague said. "I don't want this to come back and haunt me."
Unemployment fraud, if gone unremedied, can result in victims having to pay taxes on income that they never actually received, Polidori said.
Wheeler said he virtually met with state legislators Nov. 19 to discuss legislation that "would do everything we possibly can" to protect victims of unemployment.
When asked what advice he would offer victims, Wheeler encouraged victims to continuously monitor their credit, set up an identity pin through the IRS and, despite the problems, to file a report with IDES.
This can be done on the IDES website at www2.illinois.gov/ides/Pages/Reporting_Unemployment_Insurance_Fraud.aspx.
Because of long wait times associated with the department's fraud hotline, Polidori recommended filling out the online contact form as an alternative.
If a debit card for unemployment benefits is received in the mail, it should not be activated and should be cut up and disposed of so that it cannot be used by someone else, Salustro said in the statement.
Victims of unemployment fraud also might consider filing a police report with their local law enforcement agency and monitoring their credit cards for fraudulent activity or freezing their credit temporarily, Polidori said.
Farley encouraged victims and employers to remain vigilant.
“Be vigilant, watch those forms as they come in, because there’s just a narrow window you have to send them back," Farley said.
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