Wyoming targeted by unemployment fraud crime ring


EVANSTON — Local 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.

For individuals who have filed unemployment claims, DWS offers several tips to avoid becoming a victim of fraud.

• Do not ever pay a fee to file for unemployment, either online or if contacted by phone. There is no fee to file a claim.

• Beware of false websites that claim to offer assistance to file for unemployment. These sites often ask for personal information or charge for services. Only file a claim through the official website at wyui.wyo.gov.

• Do not ever respond to private messages through social media that ask for confidential personal information.

• Do not upload copies of personal documents, such as a social security card, birth certificate or driver’s license, to websites. Official DWS correspondence will ask for such documents to be mailed to PO Box 2760 in Casper or faxed to (307) 473-3726. Do not send documents to any other mailing address or email address or upload them to any website.

• Do not respond to demands to verify identity within 24 hours to process a claim as DWS will not send such requests.

• Do not respond to online surveys offering payment for completion. If an email containing a link to a survey is received, do not open it or complete the survey. This is likely a phishing attempt to obtain personal information.

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 well.

Fraud can be reported by calling the general fraud hotline at (888) 996-9226 or the DWS UI office at (307) 235-3658 or by reporting online at doe.state.wy.us/uifraudreporting. Fraudulent claims are investigated by the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service.

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