Employment Security Commissioner addresses how department is working to combat ‘imposter fraud’ for benefits

Commissioner Suzi LeVine

Washington Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said Thursday that her department is taking additional steps to combat the rising number of fraudulent applications for unemployment benefits due to identity theft.

“Since the start of May – and particularly in the past week – the Employment Security Department has seen a significant rise in reports of imposter fraud,” LeVine said in a statement. “This is where bad actors have stolen Washingtonians’ personal information from sources outside of the agency and are using it to apply for unemployment benefits.”

LeVine stressed that the Employment Security Department “has not had a breach of our system and no data has been taken from our agency.”

Instead, victims’ personal information has been stolen from some other source, she said, using as an example a massive external data breach like the one occurring at Equifax. Criminals use that information to apply for benefits and attempt to route those payments to their own bank accounts.

“Many Washingtonians did not know their information had been stolen in the past, and this situation has only illuminated that fact as fraudsters attempt to get unemployment benefits in Washingtonians’ names,” LeVine said.

“Our agency has many controls and gates in place to prevent, identify and block fraud, and while we have seen a rise in reports of imposter fraud recently, this is by no means new or unique,” she said. States across the country are facing the same situation as criminals take advantage of the additional benefits available due to the COVID-19 crisis, she added.

LeVine said the agency is taking the additional steps to combat this fraud, including the following:

  • Dramatically increasing the number of agents on the fraud hotline; 100 more of whom just started Wednesday.
  • Hiring more fraud investigators.
  • Cross matching data with other state agencies and across the country to detect fraud activity.
  • Working with the U.S. Department of Labor to detect and prevent fraud.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are also holding payments for an additional one to two days this week so we can validate claims as authentic. We apologize for the hardship this may cause for valid claimants,” she said.

“We are constantly evaluating our processes and systems to ensure we can pay benefits as quickly as possible to those who are qualified while not creating more opportunity for imposter fraud.

Anyone who believes they are a victim of imposter fraud should visit  esd.wa.gov/fraud and report it immediately using the instructions on that page.

She also offered the following additional steps to take and resources to learn more if you believe your identity has been stolen:

Finally, here are the three most important things for people to know about unemployment imposter fraud:

  1. If someone is a victim of fraud, they will not have to repay the money.
  2. If someone is a victim of fraud and then needs to apply for benefits, they will still be able to do so.
  3. The department will only be contacting people from the esd.wa.gov domain and only asking people to provide information on the website esd.wa.gov. “We have seen other fraudsters offering to help individuals and businesses by sending them to phony web pages asking for their employees’ information,” she said.

“This is such a difficult and unprecedented time, and unfortunately criminals use situations like these to try and gain advantage,” LaVine said. “While our agency is working around the clock to quickly get benefits out to Washingtonians who need them, we also are maintaining vigilance and taking action to combat fraudulent activities so we may pay out legitimate claims and block those who seek to do harm.”

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