PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is receiving 800 to 1,000 complaints per day about unemployment insurance fraud now that the federal government has extended a COVID-19 relief package and boosted weekly unemployment checks by $300, officials said Friday.
The complaints started in March 2020 after the pandemic hit and leveled off at about 100 complaints per day, State Police Captain Robert A. Creamer said. “But we are seeing a very significant increase in complaints in the last three or four weeks,” he said.
Since April 2020, authorities have received more than 44,000 complaints of unemployment insurance fraud, Creamer said. In some of those cases, the fraudulent claims were detected before the payments were made, he said.
But Margaux Fontaine, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Training, said the state has confirmed $23 million in unemployment insurance fraud since the pandemic began. She said she could not detail how many state residents have been victims of that fraud, but she said the number of cases has been rising since the start of 2021.
“The extra $300 added to the unemployment insurance makes it more compelling for fraudsters,” Fontaine said. “It’s a national issue. It’s definitely a big problem.”
The claims stem from “imposter fraud,” Fontaine said.
“How it works is that at some point someone had their personal information stolen, and the fraudsters will use that information to file an unemployment insurance claim,” she explained. People who are still employed then receive notifications from the Department of Labor and Training about how to apply for unemployment insurance benefits, she said.
“If people receive a letter in the mail and they didn’t file for unemployment benefits, we would strongly encourage them to report it to the State Police,” Fontaine said. “There is a page on the Department of Labor and Training website that has the steps you should take if you believe you are a victim of unemployment insurance fraud.”
Those who file a report with the State Police Financial Crimes Unit are informed that there is “an ongoing, large-scale federal and state investigation of unemployment insurance benefit fraud that began in April 2020.”
The State Police website says authorities believe most victims in this investigation had their personally identifiable information stolen in a cyber data breach. These types of breaches have been occurring regularly over the past 10 years, it says.
The State Police recommend that victims also report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission at www.identitytheft.gov and visit www.annualcreditreport.com, which allows one free credit report inquiry with one of the three larger credit reporting agencies.
Additionally, victims should change all of their passwords to online accounts, the State Police said. “The stronger and longer your passwords, the more difficult it is for a hacker to compromise them,” they said.
Creamer said the investigation of the fraud has been turned over to the FBI because the suspected perpetrators appear to be from outside Rhode Island and, in some cases, outside the United States.
Fontaine said the majority of the $23 million in fraudulent payments involve federal funding. Not all the money will be lost, she said. “We are working with banks to claw back some of the payments, and we are working with insurance companies to try to get some of it back.”