Identity thieves have submitted dozens of fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits using the names of Oregon state employees, another front in thieves’ ongoing effort to capitalize on the surge of jobless claims that accompanied the pandemic.
It’s not clear how the fraudsters obtained the state employees’ names but officials say it doesn’t appear to be part of data breach. And it doesn’t seem to have put workers at risk of additional identity theft, though the departments said it has caused confusion and concern among employees.
The Oregon Employment Department declined to address the scale of the issue, citing the risk of additional fraud, but some state agencies report a large share of their employees have had false jobless claims submitted under their names.
The Bureau of Labor and Industries says 13 employees have had false claims submitted, for example, 14% of the department’s total staff. The Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services says 50 to 60 of its 900 employees have had their names used with false claims over the past several months.
“It’s a number of agencies that have experienced it,” said Leah Andrews, spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer and Business Services. She said the issue has come up in meetings among state department heads.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s been any trend that they can identify as far as where they’re getting the names,” Andrews said, but the effort doesn’t appear particularly sophisticated.
Rather than use the workers’ real job titles with the false benefits claims, Andrews said the thieves use job descriptions like “dishwasher” or “sales manager.” The department, which regulates businesses and issues professional licenses, doesn’t have any jobs like that.
“It’s almost like someone’s just randomly going through a list and seeing what they can do,” Andrews said.
Many agencies list their staff members online to help members of the public access public services, and the state has a public listing of all employees, but it’s not clear if that’s where the fraudsters got these names.
Employees whose names were used in the fraud attempts declined to speak about their experience, saying they were wary of exposing themselves to additional fraud.
Oregon says it experienced a tenfold increase in attempted identity theft last year as thieves sought to slip in fraudulent claims amid the flood of legitimate jobless benefits applications that accompanied the pandemic recession.
Unlike Washington, California and many other states, though, Oregon won’t say how much it believes it has lost to identity theft during the pandemic. The state says it is worried about attracting thieves’ attention.
But the state says Oregon’s losses are nowhere near the scale of those in Washington and California. Thieves have stolen more than $200 million in jobless benefits in Washington, and more than $11 billion in California.
Last weekend, Oregon’s employment department shut down part of its online claims form in part, the agency said, because of “suspicious activity” on its website. The weekend shutdown prevented 20,000 self-employed workers from filing their benefits claims until Tuesday, bewildering claimants and delaying their weekly benefits for a day.
The employment department declined to specify what kind of suspicious activity was taking place on its website, or comment on the separate issue of fraudulent use of state employees’ names.
“Fraudsters try many different schemes to steal taxpayer money and we don’t want to give a heads up that we are on to them,” said David Gerstenfeld, the employment department’s acting director. The department has an online form for reporting fraud.
Other organizations have faced similar issues around identity theft. Willamette Week reported in February that the Oregon State Bar warned its members about possible identity theft after several lawyers had false unemployment claims submitted under their names.
When the state receives a new jobless benefit filing, it notifies the claimant’s former employer as part of an effort to confirm a layoff or firing. That’s how the issue with state employees’ names came to departments’ attention.
The Service Employees International Union, which represents employees in many state departments, said it wasn’t aware of the issue until asked about it by The Oregonian/OregonLive. The union said it is seeking more information from the state.
This story published with permission as part of the AP Storyshare system. Salem Reporter is a contributor to this network of Oregon news outlets.
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