PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Officials at the R.I. Department of Labor and Training say they have received roughly 2,000 complaints by people who claim their identities were unlawfully being used to file a false unemployment claim.
Target 12 has learned investigators are examining whether the identify theft is tied to the massive breach of personal data at credit firm Equifax in 2017, when nearly 150 million Americans were affected.
Ellen Martin said she received a letter in the mail last week from the DLT informing her that her jobless benefits had been approved.
“I called my boss right away and said, ‘Hey, were going to let me know that you laid me off?'” she recalled. “He’s like, ‘What are you talking about?'”
“Then the reality slap, realizing that this is a big deal,” she said.
Jennifer Grace is in the same situation, though in her case the fraudulent claim was flagged by her employer’s human resources department.
“I was scared that they know other things about me,” Grace said. “If [DLT] processes the claim, where was this money going to go? Because clearly it’s not going into my bank account.”
DLT Director Scott Jensen said last week that his agency had received hundreds of claims of fraud — a number that rose to 2,000 by Tuesday. Target 12 has learned the state has paid money to some of the fraudsters, but DLT spokesperson Angelika Pellegrino said “it’s too soon to tell” how much was taken.
“We’re working collaboratively with law enforcement right now to determine the scope of the scheme,” Pellegrino wrote in an email.
“The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic is massive, and so is the unemployment insurance program’s vulnerability to imposter fraud,” she continued. “Imposter fraud occurs when someone’s personal information has been compromised in another context and used to obtain unemployment benefits fraudulently.”
Martin said over the weekend she began hearing from others who were also victims.
“So many stories of, oh, this happened to my father, this happened to my friend, it’s happened to my wife,” she said. “So apparently it’s pretty widespread.”
Pellegrino said those who suspect they are a victim of unemployment fraud should email DLT at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rhode Islanders may also contact the State Police Financial Crimes Unit at email@example.com or the FBI’s Providence Field Office at (401) 272-8310.
For Grace, she is concerned her situation may have an immediate impact, because she was about to file for unemployment benefits after her hours at work were reduced.
“I was thinking, great, now how am I going to put in a claim, because they’re going to think it’s fraud and I’m putting in the legitimate claim,” she said.
At her daily news briefing Tuesday, Gov. Gina Raimondo said she was still ascertaining how big a problem unemployment fraud is at the moment in Rhode Island, and indicated it was too soon for her to commit to providing state-paid credit monitoring or other assistance to victims.
Kim Kalunian contributed to this report
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