Action 9: Rise in unemployment payments creating new opportunities for scammers

CHARLOTTE — A rise in unemployment payments is creating new opportunities for scammers on the dark web. Thieves are using personal information to steal money from people who badly need it.

Action 9′s Jason Stoogenke checked with unemployment officials in both states and learned that the average North Carolinian receives $235 per week for unemployment. On a recent week, the average South Carolinian on unemployment received $230.

The federal government also provides $300 per week for unemployment, so if a criminal successfully steals someone’s identity, they could get more than $500 per week.

This kind of fraud hurts both taxpayers and displaced workers who really need the money.

In January, an Indian Trail man pleaded guilty in one of these cases. Prosecutors said he tricked multiple states, including North Carolina, out of more than $150,000 in unemployment money.

Last month, a Charlotte man pleaded guilty to filing fake unemployment claims. Prosecutors said he filed for unemployment in both states using nine different names and tried to collect between $250,000 and $550,000 from that and another crime.

Pete Eskew is an executive with ID.me, a company that works with many states, including both Carolinas, to verify people’s identities for unemployment benefits.

He told Stoogenke that data breaches are the main way criminals get your information.

“I’m assuming mine’s out there. I’m assuming all of your viewers’ information is out there,” he said.

“Name your breach of choice. Our material is available for purchase – social security number, date of birth, driver’s license. You can go and purchase it for $5. It’s pretty cheap out there,” he said.

Eskew said criminals find it on the dark web. He showed Stoogenke a recent screenshot of an ad on the dark web, and it read like a normal classified ad, except this one was offering more than 1,500 identities with driver licenses that are still “fresh” and hadn’t been used to claim unemployment yet. The deal comes complete with a “full replacement” guarantee and even a gift for referring a friend.

Sara Pless owns a small trucking company. She said the state sent her letters to verify that two people worked for her company and were entitled to unemployment.

“These people have never worked for our company. I don’t even know these people,” she said.

It appears that scammers were using the name of her business to try to trick the state out of unemployment money.

“It made me angry, disgusted, aggravated,” she said. “I know that people need this help and for somebody to be trying to take advantage of a terrible situation to scam people out of more money — or the government out of money — it just made me very irritated.”

Stoogenke offers these tips to help protect your identity:

  • Keep a close eye on your bank accounts.
  • Freeze your credit.
  • Be careful who you share your personal information with. Never give your information to people who contact you, even if they say they’re with a government agency.