Unemployment insurance fraud is at an all-time high amid COVID-19 crisis

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While the novel coronavirus has become associated with a laundry list of uncomfortable signs and symptoms, unemployment insurance fraud may come as another unavoidable side effect as the virus continues to shift our current climate and society.

According to a new alert issued by the U.S. Secret Service, a well-organized Nigerian crime ring has been exploiting the COVID-19 crisis by committing large-scale fraud against unemployment insurance programs across multiple states. The Secret Service warned that those without identity theft protection risk a potential collective loss set to hit hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It is assumed the fraud ring behind this possesses a substantial PII database to submit the volume of applications observed thus far,” the Secret Service said in a statement. “The primary state targeted so far is Washington, although there is also evidence of attacks in North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Florida.”

For example, in the state of Washington, individuals residing out-of-state are “receiving multiple ACH deposits from the State of Washington Unemployment Benefits Program, all in different individuals’ names with no connection to the account holder,” the statement read.

According to a KrebsOnSecurity report, the Secret Service has circulated a memo to field offices around the United States stating that the ring has been filing unemployment claims in different states around the country using Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information of potential identity theft victims.

The memo also stated that “a substantial amount of the fraudulent benefits submitted have used PII from first responders, government personnel and school employees”—something that can easily be flagged with proper identity protection.

The Secret Service believes the crime ring is working much the same way as those who specialize in filing fraudulent income tax requests—often by recruiting vulnerable people through online romance scams or those looking for side jobs (that pay direct deposit from fraudulent transactions).

The surge in fraud is centered around states experiencing some of the highest levels of unemployment claims in the country—including Washington and Rhode Island—where nearly 30 percent of the workforce is currently jobless.

That said, the Secret Service urges that the crime ring will continue to infiltrate and infect more and more states, if not the entire country, if local government officials and individuals don’t take action to avoid the fraudulent claims.

“The banks targeted have been at all levels including local banks, credit unions, and large national banks,” the Secret Service alert concluded. “It is extremely likely every state is vulnerable to this scheme and will be targeted if they have not been already.”

The Secret Service findings require citizens to be even more vigilant when it comes to cyber security, especially given that COVID-19 scams don’t stop at unemployment insurance. According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than 18,000 Americans have lost a total of $13.4 million since the beginning of the year through travel and vacations, imposter text messages, and even online shopping scams that could have been avoided with proper personal cyber security protocols.

With cyber-security at an all-time threat, now could not be a more apt time to buttress your identity with a theft protection service. There are a few reputable services out there, but Lifelock is one of the most esteemed and widely-popular services. With a LifeLock membership, you get credit monitoring, and peace of mind from our comprehensive identity theft protection.