I get a lot of questions and comments from people along these lines – “I bet you’re getting a lot of COVID scams reported.” 

And I do, but perhaps not the kind of scams they imagine. Many of these questioners suppose the scams relate to phony cures or hustlers trying to sell things in short supply, like personal protective equipment. We hear about those, but the much bigger story— mostly untold — is the raiding and looting of state unemployment systems and disaster relief by highly organized criminals. 

I wrote about this before, but I see this massive fraud continuing, and evolving to ensnare people in ways that surprise them. About a million Iowns each week are still applying for unemployment, so I don’t see this going away. 

A Clinton woman shared with me her story of unintentional involvement in an unemployment fraud. I’ll call her Kelly. Kelly works as a registered nurse. When the pandemic started, she wanted to put her skills to the best useby working on the frontlines in hospital COVID wards. 

She already had a job, but wanted to do more. So, she submitted her resume to Linkedin, a professional employment-oriented networking website, looking for a travel nurse recruiter. Over time, she corresponded with many recruiters, and shared her resume with them. In the end, she decided against the traveling nurse gig, but one of these recruiters kept sending messages to her. 

This “recruiter” then claimed he really was a construction engineer, wanted money, a romance, and kelly’s bank account information. Kelly found out he accessed her stock retirement account, but didn’t withdraw anything. When Kelly didn’t respond to his messages, he sent messages threatening to kill her, burn her house down, and threatened her family. So, Kelly blocked further communication, and hoped that ended the story. 

Kelly operated a very small part-time business, for which she kept a separate checking account which she seldom accessed. In late August, she went online and checked that account, and was astounded to see, in late July, the account received deposits of $19,000 in unemployment benefits from the state of Kansas in the name of someone Kelly never heard of before. 

Kelly contacted the bank, and eventually the funds returned to Kansas. Kelly suspects somehow the “recruiter” learned enough personal information about her to learn about her small-time bank account. 

Kelly also said she received letters from the California unemployment system, notifying her of claims made in her name in that state. 

Kelly’s case is not isolated. In late August, I received two other complaints pointing to unemployment fraud schemes. A DeWitt woman reported she received a letter from the Iowa unemployment system, showing her husband, who died very early in 2020, applied for unemployment. Another Clinton man received two letters from the state of New York asking for more information to process his unemployment claim. 

These are really cases of identity theft, and I am finding they are not limited to just unemployment, but can include other aspects of the relief programs set in place by the government to diminish the economic hit of the pandemic. Here are two more examples:

• A 78-year-old Camanche man received a letter from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) notifying him they had placed his $44,000 disaster loan in forbearance for one year. Our investigation showed someone used his identity to apply for and receive a disaster loan in May 2020.

• A 62-year-old rural Maquoketa woman received a similar letter from the Small Business Administration, about her $5000 disaster loan. 

What are the take aways or lessons from these true accounts? 

Think about these:

• Freeze your credit. The SBA loans went through after the agency checked credit on the applicants. A freeze prevents these checks.

• Be extremely careful about sharing personal financial information with someone online. This happens most often in online romances. Remember, the unemployment fraud relies on getting funds dropped into real bank accounts.

• Check your bank accounts often. If you see an unexpected deposit, investigate. 

• Pay attention to your mail. In every story in this column, the victims received mail from government agencies. Don’t ignore these letters.

Contact Seniors Vs. Crime

Let me know about scams, fraud, or other crookedness you run across. Most of what I learn, I learn from you. Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, (563) 242-9211 extension 4433, or email me at randymeier@gapa911.us