There has been a recent spike in unemployment benefits fraud reported across the nation, and residents in Whitman County are not immune from this scam.

Scammers are stealing residents’ personal information to file fake unemployment claims with the state. Pullman Police Department Cmdr. Jake Opgenorth said police have documented 55 victims of unemployment benefits fraud this spring in the city.

Sgt. Chris Chapman of the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office said his agency has also seen a “massive increase” in reports of false unemployment claims being filed throughout the county.

These scams have affected the public and private sector, including people who are still employed. Opgenorth said police are collecting all the information from victims’ reports and forwarding it to the FBI.

Diane Hodge, finance director for the Pullman School District, said several school district employees and their spouses have been the victim of unemployment fraud. Washington State University’s Human Resources Services has created a webpage warning its employees of fraudulent claims and advising them on what to do if they are targeted.

Many people who are out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic are seeking unemployment benefits and Chapman said it is his understanding that scammers are taking advantage of this situation.

“Somehow the scammers have picked up on this and have lots of names of Washington state residents where they’re filing claims in their names,” he said.

Officials say it is unclear where the data breach originated. Opgenorth said these types of crimes typically do not have local suspects and Hodge said there has been no breach of data in the school district’s system.

The Washington State Employment Security Department stated there has been no data breach in ESD’s system.

Police are advising victims of fraud to report it to their employer’s human resources department, ESD and the police. Hodge said she will contact ESD on a Pullman School District employee’s behalf.

People are also advised to report fraud to one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The Whitman County Sheriff’s Office advises people to obtain a copy of their credit report to ensure there are no unauthorized accounts or activity, and consider placing a credit freeze. People can also ask the credit bureau to set up a fraud alert on their credit report.

Hodge said she recommends people go to ESD’s website, esd.wa.gov, to create an account, even if they are not seeking unemployment benefits. That way, Hodge said, ESD has their information and a scammer cannot file a fake claim on their behalf.

On ESD’s website, esd.wa.gov, the Employment Security Department states that it is holding payments one to two days to validate claims as authentic. It is also making changes to its system that will require some customers to verify or provide certain information. This could delay payment.

Local police have posted information about unemployment fraud on their social media pages.

Anthony Kuipers can be reached at akuipers@dnews.com.

Recommended for you