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Montana fraud detection unit has its hands full during pandemic

Posted at 7:30 PM, Oct 31, 2020

BILLINGS - The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be fertile ground for cybercrime. In fact, the FBI estimates that cybercrimes have increased 400 percent during the global pandemic.

In Montana, one of the most common frauds involves attempts to claim unemployment benefits using stolen identities.

"The sheer amount of what we're getting hit with is daunting, but we're not bending," said Paul Martin, administrator of the Unemployment Division at the Montana Department of Labor. "We're watching the computer forensics very closely, looking for patterns, studying cross matches, it's just a continual cat and mouse game."

The Department of Labor's Fraud Investigation Unit now includes several employees with law enforcement backgrounds, as the agency tries to keep pace with the newest cyber tactics.

"What I'm concerned with, is the sophistication level and how clean the data is," said Martin. "They don't just have two or three points of information on an individual, they have a clean stolen identity."

Most stolen identity cases are linked to huge data breaches over the years. The breach at Equifax in 2017, for example, compromised the personal information of 148 million Americans, half of the country.

Martin cautions everyone needs to be eternally vigilant in protecting their personal identity.

"It's unfortunate, but it's the cost of being an individual in 2020, you need to protect your own identity," said Martin. "Everyone needs to be vigilant in times like this, not just with your health, but with your personal identity as well."

What do you do if you discover that your personal identity has been stolen and is being used to file bogus unemployment claims? The first step is to alert the Unemployment Division's Fraud Hotline at 406-444-0072.

"Our mission is to try and stop the fraud before any benefits leave," said Martin. "Detect it up front, because the sooner we're alerted to the fraud, the quicker we can stop it."

So far this year, the Labor Department's Fraud Unit has stopped a mind boggling $360 million in confirmed fraudulent claims from going out.

"It's a significant amount," said Martin. "What's most important for us is to get the money out to eligible Montanans. I think that's been a real help to the economy and getting us through this pandemic."

Since the start of the pandemic, the state of Montana has paid out more than one billion dollars in unemployment benefits to 107,000 Montanans.

Looking ahead, Martin knows the spike in cybercrime isn't going away any time soon.

"We may very well get more fraudulent attempts with an addition to the CARES ACT, but we'll be ready," said Martin. "We have had some practice this year, and we're adding new fraud detection measures every day."