A dramatic rise in the filing of fraudulent unemployment claims is hampering the state’s efforts to pay out benefits to an unprecedented number of Washingtonians during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the state Employment Security Department (ESD), said at a Thursday virtual news conference that criminals are using stolen personal information to fraudulently apply for benefits.

She said tens of thousands of individuals statewide have had fraudulent claims filed in their names, which translates to a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars.

LeVine said there has been no data breach in ESD’s system, and that criminals used personal information exposed during data breaches such as the Equifax data breach of 2017.

Several hundred Skagit County residents recently have reported fraudulent unemployment claims to law enforcement.

Skagit County Undersheriff Chad Clark said the sheriff’s office received 105 fraud reports in May — the vast majority of which were for unemployment fraud — compared to 24 reports in April 2019.

“We’ve been hammered by this all month,” he said. “It’s people taking advantage of the situation, because of so many unemployment requests.”

Clark said a fraudulent claim was filed in his name. He said he was alerted to the issue after receiving mail from the ESD requesting additional information.

He said those who are victims of unemployment fraud should report it to their police department.

They should also report it to the ESD, to their employer’s human resources department and to one of the three major credit bureaus, according to a memo from the Washington State Fusion Center.

Employees in local school districts have been targeted by unemployment fraud.

Whitney Meissner, superintendent of the La Conner School District, said she and about 10 employees had claims filed in their names. She said a red flag arose after the school district began receiving requests for information for employees who still had jobs.

“I think what makes me the saddest is that people actually need unemployment (benefits) and now that system is bogged down with unemployment fraud,” Meissner said.

About 55 of the Sedro-Woolley School District’s 750 employees had fraudulent claims filed on their behalf, said Darrell Heisler, the district’s executive director of human resources.

He said he sent instructions to all employees on how to be proactive in preventing fraud. He suggested creating an online SecureAccess Washington (SAW) account and attaching unemployment as a service — even if employees don’t intend to apply for benefits. He said that will prevent criminals from claiming an unemployment account for themselves.

LeVine said at the Thursday news conference the state has put in place measures to decrease fraudulent activity, such as hiring additional fraud investigators and asking unemployment claimants to provide more information to verify their identities.

Claimants should expect an additional one to two days of processing time.

“One of the biggest (steps) was holding payments for several days to validate claims as authentic,” LeVine said. “This makes me the most angry and most upset that we need to delay payments for Washingtonians who need benefits.”

Since March 7, when COVID-19 job losses began, the state has paid out nearly $3.8 billion in state and federal funds, according to a Thursday ESD news release. About 768,000 — or three-quarters — of those who filed an initial claim have been paid.

The state is working to clear a backlog of applicants who still have not received benefits. As of May 11, about 57,000 claims were in adjudication, meaning the state is resolving an issue with the claim, according to an ESD news release.

The state’s goal is to have 100% of applicants paid and issues resolved by mid-June.

Doug Fowler, who lives north of Burlington, told the Skagit Valley Herald last week he applied for unemployment in March after he was furloughed from his job as a custodian at the Swinomish Casino & Lodge, but had yet to receive benefits due to an unresolved issue with his claim.

“I’ve gone five weeks without pay and it’s killing me,” he said. “I haven’t gotten any response from the state.”

Fowler said he and his wife have been able to survive on savings and earnings from her job at an essential business, but losing half their income has put them in a bind.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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