|A COVID-19 Unemployment Assistance Updates logo is displayed on a smartphone on top of an application for unemployment benefits.AFP via Getty Images|
A Nigerian fraud ring has reportedly swiped millions of dollars in unemployment benefits — funds meant to help out-of-work Americans.
The complex and widespread theft scheme used stolen identity data from citizens, including social security numbers, to file false claims on behalf of workers who may not even have lost their jobs, according to a New York Times report.
Federal authorities believe most of the phony claims have been filed in the state of Washington, though evidence suggests similar attacks in six other states: Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wyoming, a Secret Service memo obtained by the Times said.
The ring could end up stealing “hundreds of millions of dollars” from state unemployment departments that have been completely overwhelmed by Americans desperate for a financial lifeline after economies shut down.
Roy Dotson, a special agent at the Secret Service, told The Times that investigators were still trying to confirm who was behind the attacks and where exactly they are operating,
”We are actively running down every lead we are getting,” Dotson said.
Investigators believe a network of middlemen in the United States is likely involved as intermediaries, or “mules,” for the operation.
They also fear the attackers must have amassed reams of personal identifying information in order to have carried out such a broad hit on state unemployment systems.
“It is assumed the fraud ring behind this possesses a substantial P.I.I. [Personally Identifiable Information] database to submit the volume of applications observed thus far,” the memo said, according to the Times.
Signs of fraud have reportedly flashed across the country.
Rhode Islands’ labor department has noticed suspicious claims, the Times found.
And confused workers and business owners in Washington state have flooded officials there with calls about unemployment notifications that were sent to them even though they hadn’t made claims.
“This is a gut punch,” Suzi LeVine, the commissioner of the Employment Security Department in Washington state, told The Times.