HOUSTON - Unemployment fraud continues to grow like wildfire across Texas and the U.S. as identity thieves are stealing workers' much needed benefits.
The Texas Workforce Commission says it has paid out $691 million in suspected fraudulent claims since the pandemic began.
While that's only 1.5% of claims, it shows that hundreds of thousands of Texans' identities have been stolen.
If you receive a letter from TWC saying you applied for benefits when you didn't, don't throw it away. You need to act fast.
"Someone has gone in there and changed my birthdate using my social and I guess they're collecting money on it. It's insane, unsettling for sure," said Kevin Osborn.
Osborn says the situation is holding up his unemployment benefits, just when he needs them.
"Apparently, someone else has stolen my identity and it wasn't too hard for them to do that," he said.
The Texas Workforce Commission says when the federal government increased unemployment benefits, suspicious claims shot up from 1142 in 2019, to 234,268 in 2020.
"The High Risk Suspicious Claim Detection Tool doesn't detect all ID theft claims, so employers are encouraged to respond to suspicious claim filings," said Cisco Gamez, TWC spokesperson.
"It's continuing to impact many different folks, not just employers but small businesses. Even law enforcement because it's overwhelming them in terms of the number of cases that are actually being reported to them," explained Lewis Bertolucci with Allstate Identity Protection.
Identity theft experts say cyber criminals are using data bought on the dark web that was stolen, usually years ago, in data breaches, such as the Equifax, banking and health care breaches.
"Social security numbers, names, dates of birth, mother's maiden name, all the things traditionally the state systems have used to apply for those benefits, they're out there in the wild," said Eva Velasquez with the ID Theft Resource Center.
"A cyber criminal can actually obtain your name, your Social Security and many other attributes that help them file this unemployment fraud, or even tax fraud, against you for as low as $3," said Bertoucci.
If a thief can apply for your unemployment benefits, they can do even more damage.
"It's the same data, same credentials necessary to open a new line of credit, or get a new credit card, or get a car loan," said Velasquez.
Osborn says he wishes the state had taken more steps to protect his benefits.
"I put a trust in the government that they'll be there to support me when I need it. And here we are, and the bills they keep coming. Nobody's going to stop them because of this issue," said Osborn.
If someone has applied for unemployment benefits in your name, the Identity Theft Resource Center recommends freezing and putting fraud alerts on your credit with all three credit bureaus, changing your account passwords, and using multi-factor authentication on all of your online accounts.
Equifax - 800-349-9960
Experian - 888-397-3742
TransUnion - 888-909-8872
You should report the incident to the Texas Workforce Commission Fraud Department online, by phone at 1-800-252-3642, or email at IDTTF@twc.state.tx.us. You should also notify your employer, the police, and the Federal Trade Commission.
If your bank or credit union account was compromised, contact the fraud department of each institution.