PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When James and Debra Miller began filing their taxes as newlyweds in the late 1990s, they said the federal government started garnishing James’ wages.
The Providence couple said it was because another man named James “D.” Miller had somehow acquired the same social security number. But unlike the James Miller of Providence, the other man served in the U.S. armed forces, lived in New York and owed back taxes to the IRS.
“It’s aggravating,” said Miller, who doesn’t have a middle name. “It’s just getting to be too much.”
Fast forward more than 20 years, the Millers continue to grapple with the issue. The couple received a threatening letter from the government earlier this year indicating Debra was at risk of committing fraud. The letter accused her of failing to disclose Veteran Affairs benefits for James as income on food-benefit forms. James said he’s never served in the military.
“I really can’t believe that one person with the same name and the same social security actually really does exist,” Debra said. “I don’t believe that.”
The Millers are not alone and the issue of identity theft in Rhode Island has skyrocketed in recent years. A Target 12 analysis of Federal Trade Commission data shows Rhode Island identity theft reports increased from 989 in 2018 to 30,271 in 2021 – a more than 30-fold increase. And last year, Rhode Island had the highest rate of reported cases in the nation with 2,862 per capita.
The No. 2 state – Kansas – reported less than half that amount: 1,355 cases per capita.
“I don’t think Rhode Island intentionally failed her citizens, but I think we negligently failed our citizens,” House Minority Leader Mike Chippendale told Target 12. “It was just an overall failure of us as government officials to take the matter seriously enough to where we would allocate the time, the resources, the funds to address it.”
Identity theft isn’t a new crime, but it has become vastly more popular in recent decades with the rise of the internet age. High-profile data breaches at major companies, such as Yahoo, Equifax and Facebook, have compromised millions of Americans’ personally identifiable information, including names, home addresses, social security numbers and more.
In Rhode Island, a R.I. Public Transit Authority data breach last year affected the personal information of 22,000 state employees, including thousands who never worked at the transportation agency.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island is now leading a class-action lawsuit against RIPTA and United Healthcare, alleging they were “negligent in failing to properly maintain, protect, purge and safely destroy the data” and failed to notify those affected in a timely manner.
In Rhode Island, and elsewhere across the country, identity theft boomed during the pandemic, especially in the first couple of years as billions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid began pumping out through hastily put-together benefit programs.
“Because all of this information during the pandemic was online or virtual, there’s really not a lot of check and balances that can be reviewed in terms of checking an ID, or verifying a lot of information,” said R.I. State Police Lt. Richard Ptaszek, who heads the department’s financial crimes unit.
“That procedure itself makes it vulnerable for people to get access to that information and benefit from it in a fraudulent manner,” he added.
In Rhode Island, fraudsters found new and creative ways to scam the system. For example, A Target 12 investigation in December 2020 revealed millions of dollars in small business disaster loans were going toward fake farms.
The most popular target, however, was the state’s unemployment insurance program. Economic shutdowns pushed tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders into the benefit program, which became inundated with an unprecedented volume of applications from out-of-work residents seeking financial support.
The chaos caused by soaring demand caught the attention of fraudsters, who quickly started applying for – and often receiving – benefits using stolen identities.
“If you look at it, it’s geared toward a specific kind of identity theft that happened during that timeframe, which was unemployment fraud claims,” Ptaszek said.
Federal, state and local investigators are still trying to sort out how badly the state’s unemployment insurance program has been hit by fraudsters. But R.I. Auditor General Dennis Hoyle recently estimated the state paid out nearly $100 million of fraudulent claims through the first 16 months of the pandemic, and he suspected the overall total included at least another $550 million.
“Controls over the processing of unemployment insurance claims were ineffective to sufficiently prevent fraudulent unemployment insurance benefit payments,” Hoyle wrote in a July report.
Catching identity thieves is no easy task, either. Ptaszek says bringing charges against people who break the law locally is achievable. But because so much personal information is accessible on the world-wide web, it’s tougher to investigate national and international cases.
“We’ve seen relatives steal other relatives identities – which are pretty easy to lock down,” Ptaszek explained. “But then you have people from out of the country that get information and are getting funds sent overseas. Those are very difficult to identify.”
There have been some success stories. In April 2021, Rhode Island federal prosecutors announced the arrested of 15 people accused of defrauding unemployment insurance programs across the country. The scheme involved withdrawing fraudulent funds from a casino ATM in Lincoln.
“It’s disgraceful that anyone would attempt to fraudulently obtain [federal] funds intended for hard-working Americans during the current health crisis,” said Richard Myrus, acting Rhode Island U.S. attorney at the time.
But in most cases, identity theft cases go unsolved. In 2021, only 71 identity theft charges were filed in state and federal court, according to a Target 12 review of records. That’s less than 1% of the more than 30,000 identity theft cases reported to the FTC that same year.
The Millers, meanwhile, continue to try and navigate multiple state and federal agencies to try and solve their ongoing issues tied to James’ identity. So far, they’ve received confirmation from the Social Security Administration that James is the only one who should be assigned his social security number.
But they are still trying to get the VA to acknowledge that James isn’t the person receiving their benefits. And after more than two decades of dealing with this issue, Debra said they’ve run out of patience.
“This isn’t fair,” Debra said, looking at her husband. “You are being penalized for something someone else did.”
Eli Sherman (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.
Sarah Guernelli (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the consumer investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.