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State fighting federal unemployment fraud rings

AG arrests 29 people who stole $2.5M

The Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General so far has arrested 29 fraudsters in six “fraud rings” who stole a total of $2.5 million in federal unemployment compensation.

And there are several other investigations ongoing, according to Chief Deputy AG Brian Zarallo, speaking Tuesday in a virtual news conference hosted by the Department of Labor & Industry.

“Fraudsters have been stepping up their efforts to gather Pennsylvanians’ personal information, including usernames, passwords, unemployment compensation personal identification numbers and Social Security numbers,” stated a joint agency news release that accompanied the briefing on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance cheating. “The goal of these scammers is to create fraudulent unemployment program claims or log into existing claims and redirect unemployment benefits payments.”

PUA fraud flourished in the summer, and it has revived with the renewal of the PUA program in January, officials said.

The fraudsters have been “very bold,” said Acting Labor Secretary Jennifer Berrier.

They’ve been using information obtained in “previous non-governmental data breaches,” and through “phishing or spoofing,” according to the news release.

They contact intended victims by calling them, texting them or messaging them through social media; and by offering help while posing as government agents or members of other entities for claimants themselves, according to the news release.

People need to be wary, so they can distinguish valid sources of information, officials said.

The department never contacts anyone with a request for usernames, passwords, PINs or full Social Security numbers, according to the news release.

The department reaches out only by phone and email, according to Berrier.

It will eventually begin contacting claimants by text, but the department hasn’t set up that capability yet, she said.

The department doesn’t reach out to claimants via social media, she said.

“If any offer seems too good to be true,” ignore it, Zarallo advised. “There are no easy shortcuts,” he said.

The surge of unemployment claims due to the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the department almost a year ago, causing delays, which continue, helping to make legitimate claimants vulnerable to enticements from fraudsters.

The fraud barrage has also forced the department to divert resources to contend with it, further aggravating delays for those legitimate claimants, according to Berrier.

But people need to be patient, she said.

Signs of fraud include receiving unemployment paperwork from the department that was never requested, receiving 1099G tax forms for unemployment compensation when there have been no benefits and receiving unrequested benefits.

Fraud victims can receive unrequested benefits when checks that fraudsters plan to intercept come to their mailboxes and the victims get to those checks first, Berrier said.

Some victims have no easy way of knowing they’ve been victimized, according to Zarallo.

Anyone who suspects that they’ve been a victim should report it, officials said.

They can do that by completing an identity theft form, available from the department website; by filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission at www.identitytheft.gov/; and by filing an unemployment benefits fraud form, available on the department website.

They also can call the PA Fraud Hotline — 1-800-692-7469, and they can file a police report in the municipality where they lived when the fraudulent benefits were paid.

People concerned about identity theft can sign up for credit protection services and may be able to monitor their identity status through credit reporting agencies, according to Zarallo.

In addition to fraudsters who use stolen identities, working in rings and on multiple targets, there are fraudsters who simply try to get money in their own names to which they know they’re not entitled, Zarallo said.

There are also people who innocently apply for benefits to which they don’t realize they’re not entitled, and sometimes those initially register as fraud, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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