This simple step may prevent fraudsters from posing as you for unemployment money
Criminal impostors used stolen data to pose as Washingtonians, to file for unemployment. Here's how you can protect your own account.
Since early May, these sophisticated fraudsters used information from past breaches, like the Equifax breach, to create accounts for gainfully employed Washingtonians and then file for unemployment.
This may have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
It appears these sophisticated fraudsters have targeted educators and highly paid people in business and finance – who would not have logged into the system because they likely haven't lost their jobs. Educators have kept their jobs, for the most part, which makes them an easier mark as well. And highly-paid people would result in a bigger payout per individual, as unemployment is a percentage of one's wages.
Want to prevent being targeted, or find out if you have been? There is a simple way to find out, if you work in Washington state: Create an account with the unemployment office. Here's how to do it:
- Set up a Secure Access Washington account (SAW). https://secure.esd.wa.gov/home/
- Sign into your account and begin the process to file for unemployment. Don’t worry – you won’t actually be filing for unemployment!
- At the “verify my identity” step (see screenshot below), you will be able to see if anyone has accessed your account, or filed a claim on your behalf.
- Enter your email to verify your account.
Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the Employment Security Department, confirmed this is the equivalent of a freeze on a credit bureau, meaning that if you have claimed it, no one else can.
“It would become your account,” she said. “It locks into your social security number and your information.”
Since publishing this story, we heard from one reader who said this method is not perfect -- he had an account set up but was still hacked. The reader said that the fraudster went so far as to include a phony job search.
LeVine said the department is taking its own steps to prevent further fraud. She said the breach was not a problem with the department’s system, but rather people using information available to break in through individual accounts.
“It's really important that people know that we have not had a data breach and the information was not stolen from us,” LeVine said.
Unprompted, LeVine would not say whether arrests were forthcoming.
The department will hold payments for 1-2 days to validate them as authentic. It also plans to hire 100 additional staff, including fraud investigators, and require some individuals to verify or provide certain information.
These changes could delay payment.
Washington state was targeted, LeVine said, in part because it is “the second most generous in terms of our maximum weekly benefit amount in the United States.”
The Employment Security Department recommends the following steps if you have already been a victim of this fraud:
- Report it at this website: https://esd.wa.gov/unemployment/unemployment-benefits-fraud
Note: Some of the letters from the Employment Security Department said people should send sensitive information to an email address. That is old content. Now they have the secure online reporting form.
- Go to the FTC identity theft website: www.identitytheft.gov for great resources on reporting.
- Request your free credit reports via www.annualcreditreport.com and review them for other fraudulent activities.
- Go to atg.wa.gov/recovering-identity-theft-or-fraud for additional tips from the Washington State Attorney General.
- Or call toll-free: 1-800-246-9763
Note: They are receiving an extremely high number of calls and the fastest way to report fraud is with the form above.
Also of note: Victims of fraud will not have to repay the unemployment benefits, LeVine said.
“Additionally, if those victims themselves need to apply for benefits, they will still be able to do so.”
Carolyn Adolph and Tom Banse contributed to this report.