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OKANOGAN - Police agencies in Okanogan County had received nearly two dozen reports of fraudulent unemploy-ment benefits filings as of late last week.

“We have had over 20 reports of fraudulent applications for unemployment benefits since May 7,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley. “The majority of those reports are coming from employees of school districts, Okanogan County and Washington state employees.”

He said he’s sure the scammers are targeting employees of businesses deemed essential during the COVID-19 shut-down in hopes of being able to file for unemployment benefits in their names.

“With the large amount of claims due to high unemployment, thieves are looking for one more way to get money they did not earn,” he said.

As of Friday, May 15, the Omak Police Department had received several calls about fraudulent filings.

Brewster Police Chief Marcos Ruiz said he’s aware of such filings, too.

“It does not affect just one work field, it varies,” he said. “The state shut down new applications for unemployment yesterday (May 14) due to the high incidents of fraud.”

The state has received hundreds of thousands of new unemployment applications since pandemic shutdowns start-ed in early March.

“Since the start of May – and particularly in the past week – the Employment Security Department has seen a signif-icant rise in reports of imposter fraud,” said Suzi LeVine, department commissioner. “This is where bad actors have stolen Washingtonians’ personal information from sources outside of the agency and are using it to apply for unem-ployment benefits.”

Hawley said people who become aware of a fraudulent application in their name should file a fraud report with the Employment Security Department at www.esd.wa.gov/unemployment/unemployment-benefits-fraud.

“I contacted the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and was advised this is a statewide problem,” said Haw-ley. “The AG’s office advised they are referring people to file online with the Washington state Employment Security Department. I was advised the phone lines are down due to large call volumes so filing online is the best approach and it provides the steps and information needed.”

He said he hasn’t had any reports of payments going out to scammers, since the Employment Security Department seeks confirmation from the employer prior to activating benefits.

“Employers should be vigilant verifying any correspondence from Washington state Employment Security to that any fraudulent applications can be addressed,” he said.

He also advised to follow up by checking credit reports to ensure no other fraudulent activity has occurred.

“They should also ask for a fraud alert to be placed on their credit report,” he said. Such an alert lasts 90 days ini-tially.

LeVine said Employment Security has not had a breach of its system and no data has been taken from the agency.

She said victims’ personal information apparently has been stolen from some other source, for example in one of the massive external data breaches like the Equifax breach, and then used by criminals to apply for benefits and at-tempt to route those payments to their own bank accounts.

“Many Washingtonians did not know their information had been stolen in the past, and this situation has only il-luminated that fact as fraudsters attempt to get unemployment benefits in Washingtonians’ names,” she said.

She said her agency has many controls and gates in place to prevent, identify and block fraud. Other states face sim-ilar situations.

She said her agency is increased the number of agents on the fraud hotline, hiring more fraud investigators, cross matching data with other agencies and across the country and working with the U.S. Department of Labor to detect and prevent fraud.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are also holding payments for an additional one to two days this week so we can validate claims as authentic,” she said last week. “We apologize for the hardship this may cause for valid claim-ants.”

The Grant County Sheriff’s Office advises people who are recently unemployed, or know someone who is, to learn how to recognize unemployment benefits and stimulus scams, and the protections available. Some tips:

-Avoid giving access to bank account information other than those authorized by the account holder. Only scammers will demand personal information, such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, debit and credit cards, or PINs in order to receive stimulus funding.

-Avoid suggestions of paying any amount of money to receive federal stimulus money. Individuals will not be asked to pay any money, including a “processing fee,” to receive a stimulus check.

-Check mailboxes frequently to ward off theft.

-Beware of entering personal or financial information into phishing websites that appear to look like legitimate government websites.

-Do not share personal information with any person or website that asks for it related to the federal stimulus pack-age.

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