The Montana Department of Labor reports an alarming uptick in scammers trying to defraud the government of unemployment benefits since the pandemic began.
In Montana alone, the agency's Fraud Unit stopped $189 million in fraudulent payments between June 1, 2020 and Aug. 31, 2020.
Unemployment Division Administrator Paul Martin said another $185 million in potential payments have been withheld.
One of the newest scams targets real estate listings in an effort to establish a Montana address, so the scammers can begin collecting benefits.
"Oftentimes they are large criminal organizations. They don't reside in Montana. What they want to do is put a Montana address onto a stolen identity," said Martin. "So they are going out online to real estate listings and looking for addresses of property that's for sale and they are using that as their address.
In Billings, numerous homeowners who recently listed their property for sale have received dozens of letters from the Unemployment Division, all with various names using the same address.
"In most cases, we already know this is a fraudulent claim," explained Martin. "The mail is a downstream effect of that. We're trying to verify identities and incomes, and we're using the mail to do that."
According to Martin, each name on the letters represents a stolen identity, likely victims of huge data breaches. In 2017, for example, a data breach at Equifax involved the personal information of more than 148 million Americans, nearly half of the nation.
When the new federal coronavirus relief aid package added billions of federal unemployment dollars into the mix in response to the pandemic, scammers saw an opportunity. The immediate result: a huge uptick in unemployment fraud in every state.
So what should you do, if suddenly a batch of mail shows up from the Department of Labor Unemployment Division?
"Please write return to sender on that, or NATA, not at this addresss - or both," said Martin. "That will get it returned to us. I encourage people to stick it in a US mailbox. It's a great help to us."
The Unemployment Division has also enlisted the help of the Montana Association of Realtors to help alert buyers and sellers to this latest scam. Martin said your best bet is to alert the state's Fraud Hotline at 406-444-0072 to report anything suspicious.
Martin told MTN News the state has stopped a vast majority of the unemployment fraud, using computer forensics and sharing services with other states, to identify scams and stop them before they can gain traction.
He's also seen scammers go as far as to create bogus websites where people think they are filing for unemployment, when in fact it's a method for the criminals to gain access to private information.
"The bottom line is check the URL of the website," said Martin. "If it doesn't end in .gov, it's not legitimate."
Martin also advises employers to alert the Labor Department if they suddenly start to receive mail regarding unemployment claims, that they were not aware of, or did not request.
It could be a sign of potential fraud, and should be reported to the Labor Department's Fraud Hotline.