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Unemployment fraud surfacing in Nevada amid record claims

Updated April 14, 2020 - 4:40 am

Tom Sawyer, like many others, was furloughed from his job at IGT earlier this month.

But unlike many of his colleagues, the unemployment insurance website won’t let the technical support engineer file for benefits. Turns out, someone else had filed a claim using his Social Security number under a different name.

More than a week later, Sawyer is still waiting for his claim to be processed.

Rosa Mendez, spokeswoman for the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation — which oversees the unemployment insurance office — said fraud is “always a big concern” for the department. She declined to quantify how prevalent fraudulent claims are within the department.

Fraudulent claims ’may be possible’

Fraud seems to be at the top of the mind for many state officials. On Monday, Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford announced the formation of the Nevada COVID-19 Task Force, meant to handle complaints and cases related to general fraud, insurance fraud and workers’ compensation fraud, among others.

“Sadly, it is all too common for fraudsters to take advantage of the public during times of great distress and hardship,” Ford said in a Monday news release.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were 3,027 theft reports relating to government documents or benefits fraud in the first quarter of 2020.

That’s up 10 percent from the previous quarter, but down from the 3,407 reports in the first quarter of 2019. The department did not have data readily available on the number of complaints from consumers regarding unemployment insurance fraud specifically.

Mendez said applicants who believe someone else is using their identity should contact the Fraud Unit for assistance at 775-684-0475, and those who are worried they have been scammed should contact the Office of the Nevada Attorney General or the Federal Trade Commission.

“Our (unemployment insurance) system is using multiple factors to verify identity in addition to security measures to protect this data,” Mendez said. “(But) if someone has stolen someone’s identity, (a fraudulent claim) may be possible.”

Those who commit fraud when filing unemployment claims can be charged with a felony, and are subject to “significant financial and administrative penalties,” including jail time, Mendez said.

Claimants can check to see if someone has used their Social Security number for employment benefits by checking their earnings and leave statement. This can be done online at the Social Security Administration’s website: ssa.gov/myaccount/.

‘Frustrating’ experience

Employment attorney Christian Gabroy said it’s much more common for claimants to face challenges with the unemployment office’s phone lines or website than fraud when filing for unemployment.

“I think what is more of a concern is putting the benefits as quickly as possible in (our community’s) hands,” he said. “The problem is that the system hasn’t been updated yet. … You can’t commit a fraud if you can’t file your claim.”

Sawyer said one of the most frustrating parts of his filing experience has been trying to reach a representative at DETR’s Employment Security Division.

For days, Sawyer said he and his wife would sit across from each other, each entering the division’s phone number over and over again. Each call would end with a message telling them all agents are busy, they would have to call back later. It wasn’t until Wednesday that Sawyer got through the line.

“We spent over six hours of just dialing, and that’s thousands of attempts, multiple times a day. … Just calling and calling and calling,” he said. “It’s just frustrating.”

Mendez said some workers in the division had been reassigned to help support general unemployment claims as the office faces record-high volumes. As of April 4, there have been 271,533 initial claims filed in 2020, more than the state saw in 2018 and 2019 combined.

The state has been working to improve the filing system in recent days. On Friday, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced a third-party call center would add 100 full-time workers to handle unemployment claims. On Saturday, the website was temporarily shut down to conduct system enhancements and to prepare for the implementation of the federal $2 trillion stimulus package.

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

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