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Jobless after coronavirus layoffs, then struck by identity theft

This crime is always painful, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has extra sting.

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Identity thieves are using stolen Social Security numbers to file for unemployment benefits in other peoples' names, according to complaints.

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Getting laid off from a restaurant job was supposed to be the bad part. But when a server went to file for unemployment benefits in Colorado, a second nasty surprise was waiting. Someone else was already drawing benefits in the server's name, in another state. An identity thief had struck, and this was how the server found out.

The thief used personal information like the server's name, birth date and social security number, according to a complaint the server filed with the US Federal Trade Commission. "I have contacted Social Security Administration and they said there is nothing they can do since it doesn't list what state the claim was made," the server wrote. "Therefore, I'm unable to get unemployment from a claim someone else made."

The FTC has received more than 100 reports of identity theft linked to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed thousands and put millions out of work. Like the Colorado restaurant worker in did, many laid-off workers find out the hard way that they're already victims of identity theft when they file for unemployment. Others are falling into the traps set by scammers as they try to request unemployment benefits, accidentally handing their personal information over to fraudsters instead of the appropriate state agency.

It's a rough time to realize you're a victim of identity theft. While coronavirus stimulus checks are supposed to start going out this week, they're one-time payments. Laid-off workers are relying on unemployment benefits to get through shutdowns across the country with no certain endpoint. In just the week ending on April 4, more than 6 million people around the country filed unemployment claims.

Trying to reach government agencies is a challenge, as another restaurant worker found when trying to contact the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance. "I cannot get through to the unemployment department right now due to the high volume of applicants to try to investigate and fix this," the laid-off worker wrote in a complaint to the FTC. "I will continue to try and contact the department, but needed to let it be known that the account that is active is not mine."

It isn't clear how many laid-off workers are experiencing this problem. The FTC data only includes complaints from people who used terms about the coronavirus pandemic in their written description of the situation, so there may be additional complaints not included in the data. The data covers complaints received between Feb. 1 and March 24, and it's likely many millions of layoffs have occurred since then. Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said her agency has been receiving calls and messages from laid-off workers who just found out someone else is receiving benefits in their names since early last week.

Time will tell if identity thieves were drawing these benefits before the pandemic struck, or if they're swooping in to file for unemployment now when the federal government has increased the amount of time people can draw unemployment benefits for.

Laid-off workers who find that their identities have already been stolen can do a few things to address the situation. The first and most important step is to contact the unemployment agency in the state where the fraud is taking place, Velasquez said. Next, victims should file an affidavit with the FTC, which counts as a crime report in the majority of cases. They can also try to file a report with local law enforcement, but some agencies are overwhelmed dealing with the pandemic, she said.

An FTC spokesperson said victims should also contact the Social Security Administration to check their earnings and leave statements to see if anyone has been using their Social Security number for employment. Victims can use an online account or send in a request form to see their statements.

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The remediation process with the state unemployment department in question may take weeks, or drag on much longer, Velasquez said. Unemployment agencies were already working beyond their capacity before they received the current flood of legitimate requests. "Now we're adding in, 'Hey, now you have fraud you have to tackle,'" she said, "and we are grossly unprepared for it."

Since people are relying on this money for basic needs like food, shelter and diapers, this kind of fraud qualifies as "an emergency," she said.

Victims should also be aware that identity thieves who file for unemployment in their names could also cause other damage. They could file for other benefits like nutrition assistance or health insurance, in addition to opening up credit cards. Victims should consider freezing their credit, because thieves likely have their Social Security numbers. You can get further advice on addressing identity theft from the FTC.

Laid-off workers who have yet to file for unemployment benefits should do so soon to keep identity thieves from getting there first. But they shouldn't panic, and they should be careful, as one benefit seeker in California found out. After trying to visit the state's official page for unemployment benefits with the Employment Development Department, the laid-off worker saw a pop-up window that would determine eligibility for benefits.

"Since I contacted EDD and it sounded logical and looked official, I completed the form," the benefit seeker wrote in a complaint to the FTC. But soon, it became clear the pop-up wasn't the official website at all, according to the complaint, which added, "I'd been scammed."