Scammers posing as out-of-work residents have bilked Washington State out of “hundreds of millions of dollars” in unemployment benefits, a top official said.
The fraudsters submitted bogus unemployment claims under the names of tens of thousands of people whose personal information had been stolen, said Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the state’s Employment Security Department.
“I realize that this is a jaw-dropping figure,” LeVine told reporters Thursday. She didn’t provide a specific dollar amount.
The revelation came amid a massive surge in jobless claims during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 38 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits in the last nine weeks as lockdowns meant to control the virus sparked layoffs across the country.
Washington’s total claims for unemployment benefits rose by about 369,000 to more than 1.6 million last week — a surge officials partly attributed to a spike in fraudulent claims.
The Secret Service has reportedly warned that a Nigerian fraud ring was swiping millions of dollars in benefits from Washington and six other states using stolen data such as Social Security numbers.
Washington has already prevented fraudsters from stealing hundreds of millions of additional dollars with safeguards such as holding up payments to validate claims, LeVine said. But that means officials are taking a day or two longer to process claims for jobless workers who actually need the money, she said.
“This makes me the most angry and the most upset — that we need to delay payments to Washingtonians who need these benefits,” LeVine said. “I am so sorry to the legitimate claimants about this.”
LeVine stressed that the information used to file the bogus claims was not stolen from the state. Scammers obtained it from previous data breaches such as the 2017 Equifax breach that exposed the information of almost 150 million people, she said.