Unemployment identity theft, also known as unemployment fraud, continues to skyrocket across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic; particularly hard-hit is Washington state. A possible Nigerian fraud ring could be to blame for many of the cases involved in the uptick. According to the New York Times, a group of international fraudsters from Nigeria are believed to be behind a sophisticated attack on the U.S. employment systems, an attack that has already led to millions of dollars being stolen. While the U.S. Secret Service is still working to identify everyone involved, Special Agent Roy Dotson believes the unemployment identity theft is being aided by mules (people who transfer illegally acquired money on behalf of or at the direction of another) being used for money laundering after making connections with fraudsters online.

According to a memo from the U.S. Secret Service in the New York Times article, investigators received information that suggested the scheme was coming from a Nigerian fraud ring, and that hundreds of millions of dollars could be lost. Washington state is believed to be the primary target for the unemployment identity theft and unemployment fraud attacks. However, there has also been evidence of similar attacks in Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Maryland and Wyoming.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) believes many fraudsters are trying to take advantage of more people, money and activity running through state employment offices due to the unusual lengths that government has gone to support Americans in light of the COVID-19 pandemic financial impacts. The ITRC has received reports from victims where workers have received notifications that their unemployment application was approved, even though they did not apply or are still working.

There are things consumers can do to prevent the likelihood of becoming a victim of identity theft as a result of an unemployment identity theft attack. If someone has an account with a government agency, they should upgrade to a passphrase and check to see if their information has been changed. If it has been changed, it should be reported to the state agency. It is also important for people affected to update all of their accounts to passphrases, to make sure their passphrases are not reused, or that a work passphrase is shared at home and vice versa. It is important to update passphrases and not use them across multiple accounts because identity thieves use stolen login information from data breaches to commit other crimes like unemployment benefits identity theft.

It is also a good idea for people to freeze their credit because it prevents new accounts and new obligations from being created that require a credit report. However, it will not stop the creation of an account with a state agency. To help protect personal information from being used in a cyberattack, it is a good idea for people to keep all of their software up-to-date, including their anti-virus software.

If someone believes they are a victim of unemployment identity theft or unemployment fraud, they are urged to live-chat with an ITRC expert advisor. Victims can also call toll-free at 888.400.5530 to leave a message for an advisor to return the call. Advisors will help guide victims and walk them through the process by creating an action plan that is tailored to their needs.


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