This year's tax season comes with an extra source of stress: Will you find out that scammers claimed government money in your name?
Unemployment benefits fraud was rampant in 2020 as the government rushed to send out COVID-19 relief. The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General has estimated the amount of benefits stolen was at least $63 billion, based on earlier patterns of unemployment fraud. But a lot of the fraud is coming to light only now, during tax time.
"People are getting letters from the IRS or different state agencies about the unemployment benefits that they supposedly received last year, when in fact they didn't," says Crane Hassold, senior director of threat research for the email security company Agari.
The passage of the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan means billions of dollars more for unemployment benefits, extending supplemental pandemic aid through the summer.
It's welcome news for people still out of work, but it also raises the stakes for an unemployment system that continues to be targeted by scammers.
Federal law enforcement has a special task force trying to track all of the unemployment benefits fraud, and the IRS has posted guidance for taxpayers who receive 1099-G forms showing taxable unemployment benefits they never received. The first step: Contact the state unemployment agency and ask for corrected forms.
But that may be easier said than done, as state workforce agencies are still struggling to cope with all the new demand. Some reported a tenfold increase in claims during the first months of the pandemic, and aid applicants continue to be frustrated by busy call centers and long waits for benefits.
Meanwhile, the fraudsters are still at it. Just a few days ago, teacher Louis Rhodes says his Maryland college notified him that the state had reported he'd applied for unemployment benefits.
"And I said, 'That clearly wasn't me, because I work!' " he says. "I just worked today!" Rhodes hopes there's still time to stop the fraudulent payments.
"The email that [the college] sent gave me instructions on how to contact the state office to let them know that someone had attempted to use my name. So I'm just a little confused why the state wouldn't know this, since they contacted the college," Rhodes says.
At Agari, Hassold has been monitoring international cybercrime gangs as they share "cheat sheets" for conning the various state workforce agencies. He says scammers also share intelligence on which agencies are most vulnerable at the moment.
"Unfortunately, most of the states are shown as paying out, at least some of the time," he says. "A lot of the chatter in the scamming communities today is about the new round of stimulus coming out and how that's going to be another free-for-all."
Many state workforce agencies are still trying to get a handle on how much money was stolen from them last year.
California says that $11 billion in benefits last year were fraudulent and that another $19 billion is under investigation. Washington state, which authorized about $600 million in questionable payments during the first weeks of last spring's pandemic response, has been trying to claw that money back from banks and individuals. At last report, it was still short about $233 million, according to testimony to a state Senate committee on March 4.
Even as they continue to calculate the damage, states are trying to improve their defenses.
According to a recent report by the Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General, the system has been too vulnerable to fraud in recent years, and "improper payments" are often 10% or more of total benefits paid out. The report cites "significant concerns" about the system's ability to distribute money quickly and securely, "particularly in response to national emergencies and disasters."
Former Labor Department official Dale Ziegler blames Congress for allowing staffing to get too low to deal with potential fraud effectively. He says when the pandemic hit, there was no way for states to rebuild that staffing fast enough.
"You don't pull a person off the street and hire him and put him in a chair and expect him to do this work, overnight," Ziegler says. "They have to be trained. They've got to get some experience."
After the first big wave of fraud last year, Congress allocated extra money to improve security. More states are now exchanging data and flagging names and Social Security numbers used by identity thieves. Several have also adopted new identity-verification services, such as ID.me. It allows unemployment benefits applicants to upload "video selfies" that are compared with their photo IDs.
But technological fixes have their own drawbacks. ID.me says it has been targeted by "major attacks to take down our service," and the CEO apologized for the wait times for those applying for aid.
The Justice Department is also warning about fake unemployment benefits websites that scammers have set up to intercept just the kind of personal data that allow them to steal benefits.
All this has raised questions about the decentralization of America's unemployment system. Traditionally, states have preferred to run their own systems, partly to keep control over how easy — or difficult — it is for constituents to get benefits.
But as the federal government continues to pump hundreds of billions of dollars of its money through state workforce agencies, the Biden administration is pushing for a more united front.
"We've seen the criminals go state to state, testing the fences, identifying where there might be an opportunity," says Suzi LeVine, principal deputy assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department. It's a new job for her; she used to run Washington state's workforce agency and was there when it realized it had been bilked on a massive scale.
"What we have had for this past year has been leaving the states individually to fight [fraud] on their own, with 53 different solutions across states and territories," LeVine says. "I do think each of those is more prepared now. However, it's time now to have a more national approach."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The COVID relief package passed recently by Congress extends payments for the unemployed. People get an extra $300 per week until September - welcome news for those out of work and also for criminals. Last year, identity thieves stole billions in unemployment relief, and the added money in the system adds to the risk of fraud. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The scale of last year's fraud was mind-blowing. The estimates of total losses start at $63 billion. California alone lost at least 11 billion. During the early weeks of COVID relief, Washington state was one of the first to realize that it had been sending hundreds of millions of dollars out the door to identity thieves. Suzi LeVine was the state's employment security commissioner at the time.
SUZI LEVINE: They came with millions of profiles on Americans that they had captured over years from data breaches lying in wait for this moment. There was a crisis, an enormous amount of money and a need to get that money out quickly.
KASTE: So one year into the pandemic, is this kind of fraud still happening?
CRANE HASSOLD: It's not nearly to the volume at the very beginning, you know, March, April, May of last year, but it is still very steady.
KASTE: Crane Hassold is with a cybersecurity company called Agari, which tracks the foreign gangs that are behind a lot of this. The gangs pass around cheat sheets for duping various state unemployment systems, and they rate the states, like so many hot slot machines.
HASSOLD: Unfortunately, most of the states are still being shown as paying out, at least some of the time.
KASTE: And the gangs also keep a close eye on the news.
HASSOLD: A lot of the chatter in the scamming communities today is about the new round of stimulus that's coming out and how essentially that's going to be another, you know, free for all.
KASTE: The main explanation you hear for all the fraud last year was the rush to get money to people fast as the pandemic took hold. And states suddenly had to start paying benefits to freelancers and gig workers, people who don't have former bosses who you can reach out to to verify their claims. Tom Costa is with the General Accounting Office.
TOM COSTA: The states and the Department of Labor were basically in a situation where they had to, you know, build the car while they were making it run and repairing it as they went along the way.
KASTE: But that's not the whole story. Long before COVID, there were problems. The Labor Department's inspector general has been sounding the alarm for years about improper payments, often 10% or more of total benefits paid out. Former DOL official Dale Ziegler says the system has been chronically understaffed, especially when it comes to people with experience detecting fraud.
DALE ZIEGLER: You don't pull a person off the street and hire them and put them in a chair and expect them to be able to do this work overnight. It does not happen.
KASTE: The federal government did kick in some extra money for fraud prevention last summer, and some states have been shoring up their defenses with new technology, for instance, this service called ID.me, which simulates an in-person check of a photo ID.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You'll be asked to look at the colors on your phone screen while ID.me takes a short selfie video to verify that you're really you.
KASTE: Some states are also starting to share more information with each other about, say, which Social Security numbers are being used for fraud. But Rob Eleveld thinks they could do more. He runs Ekata, a company that helps e-commerce companies to identify their customers. He says unemployment agencies should be asking more subtle questions about the new applicants for benefits, such as how new is this person's email address or where is the IP address of this computer?
ROB ELEVELD: Where is it relative to Martin's physical address? Oh, it's three states away. Probabilistically, is that more likely to be risky or not? Yes.
KASTE: But even with the new tech tools, there's a deeper problem. Our unemployment system is fundamentally decentralized. Each state does security its own way, and the online gangs always seek out the weakest link. Suzi LeVine, the former Washington state employment security commissioner, now helps to run the national system for the Labor Department.
LEVINE: What we have had over this past year has been leaving the states individually to fight it on their own with 53 different solutions across states and territories. I do think that each of those is more prepared now. However, it's time now to also have a more national approach.
KASTE: Whether that'll happen is unclear because there are some deep political reasons for this decentralization. States prefer to keep control over how easy or tough it is for their constituents to get unemployment benefits. But on the other hand, the federal government now has a growing interest in a more united front on security as it keeps pumping more of its money into the system. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND SUBLAB'S "TRANQUIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.