Maryland is getting swamped with fake unemployment claims and FOX 5 is learning new details about tactics thieves are using.
A massive fraud ring targeting unemployment benefits was first announced in July, but since then has only gotten worse. The Maryland Department of Labor says it’s gotten over 156,000 claims it believes are fraudulent in just the first six weeks of the new year, which is about two in three of new claims received.
About a month ago, Charles Steed, who lives in Carroll County, got four envelopes in the mail from the labor department. They had four different names, but his home address.
"I didn’t look at the name, so I opened one and it happened to be a debit card for unemployment," said Steed. "So I called the bank and asked them what should I do with them?"
He says the bank told him to take them to the post office marked "return to sender." Since then, he’s received four more debit cards.
A spokeswoman for the labor department tells FOX 5 "fraudsters were likely planning to go to the individual’s address to steal his mail," and that it’s a tactic being used across the country. She said the fraudulent claims sent to Steed’s address have been blocked.
"I hope they don’t come looking for (the debit cards) because that would definitely jeopardize my family and the surrounding neighbors that I have," said Steed.
Across the state, Marylanders are finding out their addresses and identities are being used by scammers. It also happened to Bethany Brown, a Frederick County teacher. She got a letter in the mail from the labor department about an open unemployment claim in her name.
"I opened it and my heart sank because I thought, had my identity been stolen? What had happened?" Brown said.
She says in the 15 years she’s been a teacher, she’s never filed for unemployment.
"I put a message on my personal Facebook account just saying, ‘Hey this happened to me and I’m really worried and concerned, and this is fraud.' And within about 10 minutes, four other people reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, the same thing is happening to me!'" she said.
She says none of them had any luck calling the labor department. Phone lines continue to be backed up as has been the case throughout the pandemic. Brown says eventually she got help through her state lawmaker’s office.
These fraud cases are being investigated the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General. Since the fraud ring was uncovered in July, no arrests have been announced.
FOX 5 did an open records request to find out how much money has been paid out to fraudulent claims but was told no records exist for the request.
We will continue to work to get that information.
The labor department says, "If an individual receives an unemployment insurance debit card from the State of Maryland or another state, but did not file for benefits, the department recommends that they immediately destroy the unopened envelope containing the debit card. They should report this fraudulent activity by contacting our Benefit Payment Control team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Our department will report this information to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General."