ELLSWORTH — A city councilor and his wife are among those whose personal information has been stolen and used to file fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits in an ongoing nationwide scam.
“Both my wife and I had unemployment claims filed in our names,” said City Councilor Dale Hamilton in an email on June 9. The couple immediately filled out a notice form online alerting state officials at the Maine Department of Labor (DOL), said Hamilton, but still got notices that both of their first unemployment claims had been deposited.
“I have tried to contact DOL to find out why they are processing claims that we informed them were false,” said Hamilton, but he said he’s had a nearly “impossible” time connecting with anyone there.
An international ring of fraudsters has filed tens of thousands of fake unemployment claims in the past few months as states have rushed to pay out benefits to those unemployed due to the pandemic.
Maine has canceled more than 50,000 jobless claims, including roughly 22,000 initial claims and 36,700 weekly certifications, since officials became aware of the problem in late May, said DOL spokeswoman Jessica Picard in an email last week.
“There is also a group of roughly 15,000 claims that are currently flagged and held for potential fraud,” said Picard. “This number changes on a daily basis, as new claims are identified for potential fraud and others that were being held are reinstated as people send in their identifying documentation.”
Picard said the state does not have a breakout available by county, nor does it track the number of claims filed in the names of municipal officials. A number of staff members at City Hall, including members of the Ellsworth police and fire departments, have had claims filed in their names, said Ellsworth Police Chief Glenn Moshier.
“What unemployment programs across the country are seeing is that criminals are obtaining people’s personal information through past outside data breaches (think Equifax, department stores, grocery stores, etc.), and then are taking advantage of the expanded unemployment programs (such as the additional federal FPUC $600 through July 25) by filing fraudulent claims using this personal information they had stolen previously,” said Picard.
About 4,850 people filed initial unemployment claims last week, according to the Portland Press Herald, adding to the more than 145,000 workers who have claimed jobless benefits since mid-March. Last week’s initial claims were the lowest since the pandemic triggered mass unemployment.
The department temporarily halted benefits payments earlier this month for up to 72 hours and reinstated normal, longer processing times to weed out illegal claims, but Maine is still paying out 80 percent of its claims, Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman told lawmakers in a briefing last Thursday, according to the Press Herald. That’s a higher proportion than some states, including Ohio, which is paying out rough 50 percent of claims, according to WOSU Radio.
Starting July 11, those who have been receiving unemployment will be required to prove they’re looking for work, a condition that had been suspended in March as many businesses closed and the residents were under stay-at-home orders.
Those who have been temporarily laid off but expect to return to work have until Aug. 8 until they must start looking for work.
“We want to make sure people start thinking about how they re-engage with the economy and don’t wind up in a situation where they have exhausted all their unemployment benefits and don’t have a job at the end of it,” Fortman told lawmakers, according to the Press Herald.
Picard said that anyone who believes their information has been used to file a fraudulent claim should report it to the MDOL at www.maine.gov/unemployment/fraud.
Residents also should report identity theft and take additional steps to protect their identity, said Picard, by going to www.identitytheft.gov to report and recover from identity theft. Additional identity theft resources can be found at: www.maine.gov/ag/privacy/identity_theft.shtml or www.ftc.gov/faq/consumer-protection/report-identity-theft.