Unemployment fraud hits Peninsula residents

More than 300 targeted

More than 300 North Olympic Peninsula residents have been targets of a statewide identity theft scam in which false claims were filed for unemployment benefits, officials from law enforcement agencies and Olympic Medical Center said last week.

OMC Chief Human Resources Officer-General Counsel Jennifer Burkhardt, herself one of the victims, said Friday the toll has risen to 109 hospital workers at the largest employer in Clallam and Jefferson counties.

That’s about 7 percent of the hospital’s 1,578 workers who had applications fraudulently filed under their names during a statewide surge in unemployment claims resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brian King, Clallam County Sheriff’s Office chief criminal deputy, said Friday that more than 225 county residents reported they were targeted.

“We have many, many, many victims in Clallam County,” he said.

Brett Anglin, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office detective sergeant, said more than 50 county residents, including three Friday, reported being scammed by unemployment-claim fraudsters who filed claims in their names.

The increase in fake unemployment benefits applications began May 11, with very few before that date, Burkhardt said, echoing a start-date period cited by Anglin and King.

State Employment Security Department officials have been wrestling with the bogus claims in recent weeks, saying Thursday they are getting a grip on the scam.

Suzi LeVine, Employment Security Department commissioner, had acknowledged at a May 21 news conference the loss of “hundreds of millions of dollars” to an international fraud scheme, reportedly based in Nigeria, that may have used stolen information from prior data breaches.

Agari Data Inc., a California-based email security company, said May 19 on its email security blog that mass unemployment fraud in several states, including Washington, was perpetrated by “Scattered Canary,” a Nigerian cybercrime group (tinyurl.com/PDN-AgariCanary and tinyurl.com/PDN-WashingtonCanary).

An ESD spokesperson did not return calls for comment last week.

Burkhardt said OMC reported the false claims — filing notices are sent to employees and their employers — to the ESD at the agency’s website at tinyurl.com/PDN-BenefitsFraud.

Employees were urged to notify the agency through the same general-public portal.

Burkhardt suggested they also contact credit bureaus and obtain a lock on on their accounts.

“That’s what I did,” she said.

Burkhardt said employees could obtain a PIN from the IRS to ensure a fraudulent tax return is not filed, and suggested reporting the identity theft to local law enforcement.

They and other county residents did so in droves.

About 20 OMC employees contacted the Sheriff’s Office from among the more than 200 who filed reports, King said.

“We’ve taken a tremendous amount of reports countywide in all the jurisdictions regarding that,” King said.

“It’s quite a spectrum of employers and employees.”

The sheriff’s office has been getting scam reports daily since May 13.

They were submitted by residents who work for Clallam County and the city of Port Angeles governments, Cape Flattery and Port Angeles school districts, Peninsula College, Hartnagel Building Supply in Port Angeles, the Costco store and SunLand Water District in Sequim, the Marine Spill Response Corp. branch in Port Angeles and Walmart.

“That’s by no means all the locations,” King said.

Many victims had personal financial accounts breached at the same time they received bogus unemployment-claim notices, he said.

Because the reports had the common denominator of unemployment-claim fraud, they were lumped into one case file “instead of having 200 investigations,” King said.

There was a common theme, too, of irritation among those reporting the identity theft toward the state powers-that-be.

“The other point of frustration for a lot of people was that because of the magnitude of the scam, the unemployment system has been essentially overrun and brought to a standstill,” King said.

“Not only are people being scammed, but legitimate citizens are attempting to obtain unemployment benefits that are being delayed because of these extra, false claims.”

Burkhardt said no employees have reported breaches of bank accounts or other personal data.

LeVine said May 14 that the scammers, committing what she called “imposter fraud,” stole personal information from third parties, such as those involved in the data breach at Equifax, to file the claims.

Burkhardt said all the employees she spoke with who were scammed were Equifax victims.

“I don’t have any concerns that [OMC was] breached in any way,” she said.

Most of the identity-theft victims are current employees, she said.

She was unable to contact a state ESD official to discuss the spate of false claims.

“We have tried numerous times to connect with ESD and we have been unable to reach a person,” she said.

“The website fortunately is very effective in terms of reporting, and it’s fairly simple, so that has been good.

“I would hope in the future that our state agency is able to obviate these types of claims and preclude making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Burkhardt was not too shocked to receive a falsely-filed notice from ESD that she had applied for unemployment.

“To be honest, I was aware of so many employers and so many employees being hit antargeted, so I was not particularly surprised,” she recalled.

State officials said Thursday they had recovered $300 million in funds received through the false claims.

In some cases, unemployed workers in Washington state found that claims had already been filed in their names and benefits forwarded to bank accounts that were not theirs.

The officials attributed a 65 percent decrease in unemployment benefit claims statewide the week of May 17-23 compared to May 10-16 “to significant fraud prevention measures that were put in place over the past two weeks.”

Claims fell sharply in every industry sector and occupational group (tinyurl.com/PDN-ClaimsDrop).

In Clallam County, total claims fell from 1,030 May 10-16 to 366 May 17-23.

In Jefferson County, they dropped from 412 May 10-16 to 183 May 17-23.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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