SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — The Illinois Department of Employment Security announced Wednesday they were investigating a “widespread fraud scheme” that has impacted every state’s federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) programs.

In a press release, it said their department was “aggressively cracking down” on a network of fraudsters, adding its staffers were working directly with people whose identities have either been used or possibly stolen.

IDES is working alongside local and federal law enforcement authorities to follow, investigate, and prosecute people they say are defrauding the unemployment insurance system. It says the increase in unemployment claims fraud is believed to be coming primarily out of PUA programs.

“An individual who has not filed an unemployment claim but has received a debit card or an unemployment insurance (UI) finding letter in the mail has most likely been the target of fraud,” the release said. “An individual’s personal identifying information is being used by fraudsters to file an unemployment claim is likely due to a prior cyber hack or data breach, such as the Equifax breach.”

IDES said it was “imperative” people contact their office to report identity theft if they erroneously received an unemployment debit card or UI finding letter in the mail. It added people should not activate the debit card and should have their credit report checked for possible suspicious activity, and post a fraud alert.

“Under the ambiguous federal guidelines, which were developed in haste because of the urgency of the pandemic and issued to every state without a uniform method of implementation, the potential for fraud within this system is abundant,” the release said, adding that one of the largest vulnerabilities within PUA is the absence of an employer on the other side of the claim to contest the claim in the event it is fraudulent. 

Normally, employers can alert IDES if a claim was filed under a worker who is still employed and has the ability to protest it if that person doesn’t classify as being unemployed through no fault of their own.

“This fraud scheme is in no way connected to the PUA program access issue experienced in May.  The limited data access issue of the PUA system found that one PUA claimant was able to inadvertently access personal identifying information of a limited number of claimants who had already filed an unemployment claim.  Out of an abundance of caution, a year’s worth of free credit monitoring was provided to any claimant whose information may have been inadvertently viewed by this one individual claimant.”

Illinois Department of Employment Security