Even if you don’t plan to file for unemployment benefits in Washington state, residents are urged to open a Secure Access Washington (SAW) account with the state’s Employment Security Department (ESD) to help keep fraudsters from collecting benefits in your name.
“Tens of thousands” of Washingtonians are believed to among victims of bogus claims filed in their names. Much of the massive fraudulent activity is believed to be the work of a Nigerian fraud ring that initially targeted Washington state but has also affected residents of at least a half-dozen other states. The scam has also resulted in delays in processing legitimate payments.
ESD officials have acknowledged “hundreds of millions of dollars” of fraud losses statewide, but also reported they have instituted countermeasures and recovered more than $300 million of stolen funds. They have also blocked thieves from stealing several hundred million dollars in unemployment insurance benefits. Federal law enforcement agencies led efforts to recover stolen funds in collaboration with financial institutions.
Fraud experts recommend taking several steps to determine if your personal information was misused, and suggest steps to take if you have been victimized:
- To find out if you are a victim, go through the motions as if you were filing a claim with ESD by going to ESD’s secured website.
- From the ESD home page, select the link appropriate to your situation to establish an account. (For independent contractors, see instructions for “Self-employed and independent contractors”).
Once you get to the final stages of creating your personal account, the system will alert you if your Social Security Number (SSN) is attached to another account. It also generates a portion of the email used to set up the account linked to that SSN so you can confirm if it is yours.
If you discover fraud, you’ll need to take additional steps to report it to your employer (if they had not yet been notified so they can report imposter fraud), the ESD, and other agencies such as your local police department (file a nonemergency police report), the Federal Trade Commission, Attorney General’s office, and the Internal Revenue Service.
Washington’s Office of the Attorney General has additional tips on its website.
Additionally, anti-fraud experts recommend contacting the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) and visiting annualcreditreport.com to obtain free credit reports from each service. Victims of identity theft have the right to check their credit report monthly. When reporting a fraudulent unemployment claim, you will need to provide a case number from your police report.
Identity theft victims are also advised to have one of the credit bureaus place a fraud alert on your identity and consider freezing your credit if you are not planning an upcoming major purchase. These services are free and help thwart more fraud.
According to ESD, there were 48,445 initial regular unemployment claims filed by Washingtonians during the week of May 17-23. That was a decline of 63% from the prior week. ESD believes the decrease was in large part “due to significant fraud prevention measures that were put in place over the past few weeks.”
A total of 1,130,519 distinct individuals have filed for unemployment benefits since the week ending March 7 when COVID-19 job losses began. ESD has paid out nearly $4.7 billion in benefits during the same time period. Most of that money came from the federal government’s $2.2 trillion pandemic relief measure.
In recent weeks, ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said they have undertaken aggressive measures to counteract imposter fraud in the ESD system and vowed to “reclaim every dollar we can.” Fraud victims will not be liable for funds lost to imposters, and employers will not see increases in unemployment taxes due to criminal claims filed on behalf of their employees, according to ESD.
LeVine emphasized the “priorities from day one of this crisis have been to get benefits out to Washingtonians who need them quickly and expand eligibility so those impacted can get the help they need.”