RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – COVID-19 pandemic unemployment benefits that were meant to help people, apparently attracted criminals looking to steal both money and identities from those who needed help. 

This is fraud on a massive scale, and although pandemic unemployment benefits have long since ended, it taught the fraudsters new ways to game the system — as well as impact tens of thousands of lives. 

They’re still adding it up, but right now the United States Labor Department’s Inspector General’s Office estimates at least $200 billion was stolen by criminals who used other people’s identities to collect COVID-19 related unemployment benefits.

“People were applying for unemployment benefits in the names of other people,” James Lee of the Identity Theft Resource Center said. “That means people who needed the benefits never got them.” 

A study by the Identify Theft Resource Center said 40 percent of those who applied for some type of COVID-19 related benefits had their identities stolen by criminals. 

They’re still adding it up, but right now the United States Labor Department’s Inspector General’s Office estimates at least $200 billion was stolen by criminals who used other people’s identities to collect COVID-19 related unemployment benefits (Graphic: Steve Sbraccia).

Consumer Investigator Steve Sbraccia asked Lee how all those names of victims came into the hands of scammers. 

“It’s never one thing,” he said. “But the majority of these cases appear to be the results of data breaches.”  

He explained how criminals did this on such a massive scale. He said they put technology to work for them in new ways. 

“They were able to automate the ways they applied to a state agency to get that unemployment benefit,” Lee said. “That fundamentally changed the game.” 

Lee said automation and how to continue this trend of ID Theft taught scammers they can continue to ‘game the system’ the same way, although it’s at a slower pace right now. 

“It hasn’t gone away and it’s not going to,” Lee said. 

During the pandemic, with hundreds upon hundreds of fake applications coming in, it overwhelmed systems. 

It also left many innocent victims whose stolen identities were used to apply for those benefits with financial and emotional scars.  

People have problems at work after that, problems with their family,” Lee said. “10 percent of them contemplated suicide it has such a serious impact on their lives” 

He also said the center has been studying the impact of identity theft for nearly 20 years and said ID Theft victims “have similar emotional scars as those who’ve been subjected to violent crimes.” 

Before your identity is stolen — you can protect yourself by:  

  • Freezing your credit;  
  • Using a unique password for every account;  
  • Enacting multi-factor authentication.  

Lee said all of those precautions can make your information useless to hackers.  

If your identity is stolen, there’s help available. 

The non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center specializes in aiding those who’ve been victimized. You can find out how to get that help here.