Wyoming targeted by unemployment fraud ring

Evanston man James

McDaniel was perplexed when, while sifting

through his mail one day at lunch, he

came across not one, but three, letters from

the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services

(DWS) Unemployment Insurance Office.

He wasn’t unemployed and was in fact

home from work on a lunch break.

“I probably would have just tossed it aside

if it was just one letter,” said McDaniel, “but

there were three of them, so I opened them.”

To his surprise, the letters stated his unemployment

application had been approved and

contained information on his workplace and

other personal details.

Confused, McDaniel decided to stop by

the Evanston DWS office to tell them there

had been some kind of mistake. It was then

he discovered he had become a victim of a

recent form of identity theft that has proliferated

during the COVID-19 pandemic and

associated economic upheaval and since the

passage of the federal CARES Act.

In mid-May, the U.S. Secret Service issued

a warning about “massive fraud” against

state unemployment insurance programs,

perpetrated by a “well-organized Nigerian

crime ring.” That warning said the fraud was

resulting in “potential losses in the hundreds

of millions of dollars,” and added, “the primary

state targeted so far is Washington,

although there is also evidence of attacks in

North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,

Oklahoma … and Florida.” The other

state being targeted is Wyoming.

Ty Stockton, communications manager

for Wyoming DWS, confirmed there has

been fraud occurring throughout the state and

the Nigerian crime ring seems to be the largest

one identified nationally so far.

Unlike Washington state, which has reportedly

paid out more than a million dollars

in claims, Stockton said the state has thus

far not paid out a large amount of fraudulent

claims because the fraud is being caught so

quickly, but he urged people to be careful and

pay attention to their mail.

“There are some unscrupulous characters

taking advantage of the situation,” said

Stockton, referring to the large numbers of

people filing unemployment claims during

the pandemic. “Those people are hurting

and we’re trying to get claims processed

and money to people as quickly as possible

because they need it.”

“ We’re already stretched thin answering

questions and processing so many claims,”

said Stockton, “and now we’re adding extra

steps to protect against fraud. It’s slowing

down the process and could hang up some

legitimate claims, especially if a fraudulent

application has already been filed in someone’s

name and then that person goes to file.

That’s not fair to the people who really need

that money.”

Stockton said some fraud appears to be

occurring through social media, particularly

through scammers reading Facebook comments

on DWS pages that ask questions

about unemployment. The scammer will then

pose as a DWS representative and reach out

to people through private messaging asking

for identifying information.

“DWS staff will never reach out to people

and ask for protected personal information

through Facebook messenger,” said Stockton,

urging people never to give out personal

information through such messages.

A press release from DWS warned,

“Scammers often target individuals who have

filed unemployment insurance claims, though

there is evidence that a large fraud operation

is using stolen personal information from

people who have not filed claims as well.”

Stockton said there’s no certainty as to

why Wyoming has been targeted by the Nigerian

ring but said it may have something to

do with the state utilizing an online system to

apply for benefits, which some other states

do not use.

McDaniel, who has no idea how scammers

obtained his information, has now had

to contact credit reporting agencies and take

other steps to safeguard his credit and personal

information. He said it’s unnerving to

know someone was able to get so much personal

information to file a fraudulent claim,

including his home address and place of employment.

For anyone, like McDaniel, who has not

filed for unemployment but receives a letter

in the mail regarding claims, DWS asks individuals

to report it immediately. Businesses

are also asked to pay attention to any documentation

they may get showing employees

who are still working that have filed for unemployment

and report that immediately as