On May 20, Martha Acworth opened an official-looking e-mail that surprised her because it contained an update on the status of her husband’s application for unemployment benefits.
“Your Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Application has been accepted,” it said.
It surprised her because her husband, Ted, is still employed, the CEO of a small business in fact, and was sitting nearby, hard at work.
“I have never filed for unemployment in my life,” Ted Acworth, 51, later said in an interview.
The e-mail they received that day while working from their home in Hamilton turned out to be a case of identity theft and fraud, one of tens of thousands such cases targeting state unemployment agencies across the country and apparently orchestrated by a network based in Nigeria.
On Wednesday, the Baker administration put out a press release blaming “criminal enterprises” for attempting to file “large amounts of illegitimate" claims through the state Department of Unemployment Assistance.
“This is part of a national unemployment fraud scheme,” the release said.
The administration did not say how many sham applications it has detected, or how much money has gone to phony applicants, if any. But in Washington state, where the scheme was first focused, officials say millions of dollars in payments have been siphoned off by counterfeit applicants.
The Secret Service warned earlier this month of a Nigeria-based group trying to exploit the COVID-19 crisis by committing "large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs.” It estimated “potential losses” in the range of "hundreds of millions of dollars.”
By late last week, attacks had been detected in a handful of states besides Massachusetts, including North Carolina, Rhode Island, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Florida, Ohio, and Hawaii.
“It is clear this is not just a Washington state problem,” Washington Governor Jay said last week. “This is a national and international criminal conspiracy.”
In Wednesday’s press release, Rosalin Acosta, the secretary of labor and workforce development in Massachusetts, said officials will now require additional identity verification measures. She said doing so will “temporarily delay” the payment of benefits for many legitimate claimants in Massachusetts.
Among the new measures are requirements that applicants upload photos of their Social Security card and of themselves holding their driver’s license.
One applicant for unemployment benefits told the Globe in an e-mail that the new requirements could delay payments by as much as a month.
“When I called [Wednesday] morning, I was told that now it’ll be two weeks to 30 days,” the person wrote.
More than a half-million people have sought unemployment compensation in Massachusetts since the pandemic hit, nearly overwhelming a bureaucracy more accustomed to handling less than 10 percent that number.
Anyone who believes their identity has been used to fraudulently to apply for unemployment benefits is urged to contact the state using this link.
After receiving the e-mail, the Acworths immediately called the state Department of Unemployment but their calls kept getting dropped and they were never able to connect with a fraud investigator. But they did manage to tell several customer service representatives about the e-mail and urged them to stop a check for about $5,200 that the agency was processing for “Ted Acworth.”
“It was disconcerting how easy it seemed to defraud the system and taxpayers,” said Ted Acworth, founder of Artaic, which employs 20 people designing and assembling custom mosaic artworks in Boston.
The Baker administration said in its press release that the fraudsters are using “stolen personal information” apparently gathered from earlier national data breaches.
But Ted Acworth said he has never been notified of a data breach that included his personal information. Still, someone clearly had it, because when he talked with a customer service rep at the state unemployment agency, they opened “his” application, which contained an assortment of accurate personal information, including his full name, company address, cellphone number, Social Security number, date of birth, and approximate salary.
Whoever filled out the application and filed it online in his name included an e-mail address. But the one given to the state unemployment agency is not the one Acworth uses for business. It does, however, contain an accurate configuration of his name, with initials substituted for full names.
The fraudster apparently did not want to give Acworth’s actual business e-mail address for fear it would be used by the state to communicate with Acworth, alerting him to the scheme. But the fraudster apparently wanted the e-mail address to be close enough to Acworth’s actual e-mail so as not to raise suspicions.
The e-mail, which contained the correct domain name for Artaic, somehow wound up in Martha Acworth’s “catch-all” inbox. It contained a link to the official website of the Department of Unemployment Assistance.
“It was a legitimate e-mail from the government,” Ted Acworth said. “So, as good citizens, we wanted to flag it immediately in order to stop it. Who knows how many more fake applications are out there?"
The Acworths learned from the unemployment agency that a check for about $5,200 had been prepared for “Ted Acworth,” an amount that represents several weeks of benefits. They also learned the check was set to be direct-deposited into an account at a credit union in California.
The Acworths said they pleaded with the customer service reps to stop issuance of the check, but the reps said they lacked the authority to do so.
And when the reps attempted to get the Acworths transferred to the fraud unit, their calls were dropped, they said.
“I wasn’t shocked that there was a case of identity theft, but I was shocked that the check couldn’t be stopped,” Martha Acworth said.
The unemployment agency never followed up with the Acworths, they said.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Unemployment Assistance did not respond to questions about how the case was handled.
Martha Acworth took it upon herself to call and warn the credit union in California.
The Acworths, meanwhile, are keeping their 20 employees working from home.
“I don’t need this,” Ted Acworth said of the hours he and his wife, the company’s president, have devoted to unemployment fraud. “I have plenty to do keeping my company going during the pandemic.”
Katie Johnston of the Globe staff contributed to this report.