Identity theft is often linked to stolen credit cards, false loan applications or unauthorized bank account withdrawals. Now the incidents of unemployment fraud are mounting at alarming rates in Ohio, with cases hitting close to home.

We are seeing a noticeable increase in unemployment fraud reports in the weekly police blotters from communities in Cuyahoga and Geauga counties. This is cause for alarm.

Ohio is not alone. Scammers are filing false reports across the country, taking advantage of expanded benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Experts say the verification process for the federal COVID-19 relief benefits was sped up (and perhaps not as secure) to give recipients quicker access to money for basics like food and rent.

The state received more than 70,000 reports of suspected identity theft for the pandemic jobless benefits through a new online tool launched this month.

Just this week, two reports of unemployment fraud were filed in Moreland Hills and two in Gates Mills. One report involved a woman who works at a major hospital system.

Victims usually find out their identity was used illegally after receiving a 1099 tax form in the mail from the state listing the dollar amount of unemployment benefits paid out. Victims are often clueless since scammers use their own bank accounts for automatic deposit. What’s upsetting to many victims is the prospect of having to pay taxes on large sums of money they never asked for or received.

Federal authorities describe some of the activity as nationwide and worldwide coordinated crime rings.

In Hunting Valley, a 63-year-old resident reported unemployment fraud after receiving a letter from the state about an attempt to get benefits using the resident’s name. In Orange Village, a 60-year-old woman told police she never filed for unemployment, yet the state notified her that a scammer used her name to secure benefits.

In Pepper Pike, police said 11 reports of unemployment fraud were filed between Feb 4 and Feb. 13. Two unemployment fraud reports were filed in Chagrin Falls this week.

A number of the victims, including one Chagrin Falls man who filed a police report last week, are retired.

Some of those 1099s come with sticker shock. In Akron, an 83-year-old victim received a 1099 showing $17,000 in unemployment benefits in 2020. The last time this man worked was 13 years ago.

Among those reporting stolen identities are Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, First Lady Fran DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted. State officials said a claim was filed in California using Lt. Gov. Husted’s name. It’s unclear where the fraudulent DeWine claims were filed.

The state of Ohio has paid out about $331 million on 57,000 fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. That’s on top of the $6.57 million paid to 6,300 fraudulent traditional jobless claims, according to the state.

Ohio officials say that more than half of the 1.4 million pandemic assistance claims have been flagged as potentially fraudulent.

Job and Family Services set up a hotline and website for Ohio residents who receive a 1099 tax form in error. That number is 833-658-0394, with hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Or you can file a report online by visiting www.unemploymenthelp.ohio.gov and click the “report Identity theft” button to access the form. A corrected 1099 form would then be mailed to you to help protect you from having to pay taxes on the bogus benefits. Also file a report with your local police department and check your credit record.

A joint committee within the Ohio legislature has been formed to determine how the fraud schemes happen and how the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services can be made more secure.

In the meantime, check your credit status and immediately report any suspected fraud. Visit the Ohio unemployment website listed above and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office website at www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/ for tips on how to protect your identity.

Be vigilant. Scammers are on the loose.

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