Identity Thefts Rise As Pandemic Aid Becomes Attractive Target

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Athens City Council President Christine Knisely received a tax form in the mail two weeks ago and at first didn’t think anything of it. It is tax season, after all.

“I went, oh, stuff for the taxes, you know, and I was ready to chuck it away in a file,” she said.

But on closer inspection she realized the form showed she had received $1,440 in unemployment insurance benefits last year.

“And then that’s when I realized they were reporting that I had filed for unemployment and I went, oh no, I hadn’t,” she said.

Chris Knisely [File Photo]
Knisely had been a victim of identity theft.

Identity theft is nothing new. But during the pandemic there has been a nationwide spike in the number of cases of stolen identities used to file fraudulent unemployment claims. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted are among the victims.

Congress has increased unemployment benefits to help millions of people who are out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic. And these extra benefits have become an attractive target for identity thieves.

The Athens area has seen a sharp increase in identity theft reports. The Athens Police Department received seven reports in January alone.

Athens Police Department Capt. Ralph Harvey said one reason so many reports have come in over the past few weeks is because people are receiving tax forms for unemployment benefits they never applied for.

“One of the things with identity theft as regards to unemployment fraud, the victim may not even realize they’ve had their information stolen and unemployment fraud committed until they actually start getting tax forms,” he said.

Unemployment benefits must be declared as income on tax returns, and taxpayers who fail to include this income can be penalized by the IRS.

The fraud problem is widespread enough that two weeks ago Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sent a letter to the state’s congressional delegation asking them to do something about it.

He said the state was mailing about 1.7 million tax forms to residents on record as having received unemployment benefits last year. Thousands of these might be going to people who never filed for or received these benefits, but instead were victims of identity theft.

Yost is suggesting that Congress pass legislation directing the IRS to suspend any penalties for failure to claim unemployment benefits as income while investigations into suspected fraud are  conducted.

People who suspect they have been a victim of identity theft involving fraudulent unemployment claims should immediately report this to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

The agency’s website has a link to report identity theft, or people can call a new hotline the agency set up this week. That number is 833-658-0394.

The state will investigate, and if there was fraud it will alert the IRS that the taxpayer did not in fact receive the benefits.

Victims of identity theft also should make a report to police, contact their bank and credit card companies and notify the three major credit rating agencies: Experian, Equifax and Transunion.

Law enforcement continues to investigate the cases in the meantime, but it’s challenging because the identity thieves could be operating from anywhere. All they need is a computer and an internet connection.