ST. LOUIS ( -- Scammers are stealing billions of tax dollars, taking full advantage of the pandemic to take money intended to help those who were financially devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

News 4 Investigates exposed problems with mistaken unemployment payments. Now, con artists are finding ways to get unemployment money sent to themselves while using other people's identities. 

“It’s really scary,” said Evaughn McBride, who recently got a letter stating that unemployment benefits for her husband had been approved. The problem is he hadn't filed for any unemployment. In fact, her husband, who is disabled, hasn't worked in years and wouldn't even be entitled for unemployment.

“It just flabbergasts me that people can get away with stuff like this,” McBride said.

The same goes for Mona Walker, who was shocked to find scammers had filed a fraudulent unemployment claim in her name.

“It’s a violation, it freaks me out. Honestly, it really just pisses me off,” Walker said.

The women, who both live on the Metro East in Illinois, are far from alone. A recent report estimated $36 billion have been paid out in fraudulent unemployment claims nationwide. But new data shows the State of Illinois was hit especially hard. The Illinois Department of Employment Security said between March 2020 and January 2021 they have identified and stopped nearly 1 million fraudulent claims in Illinois alone.

“At this point billions upon billions of dollars have been lost from these types of scams so far this year,” said Crane Hassold, a former member of the FBI and the current head of threat research at cyber security firm Agari.

For weeks, News 4 Investigates has been telling you about unemployment mistakes in Missouri: unintentional overpayments made to unsuspecting people. But Hassold said this is different. Personal information is being stolen off the dark web, then used by people, often overseas, to take advantage and make big bucks.

“They see it very much as a job. This is a way to make money,” said Hassold. To figure out how they tick the system, Hassold contacted the con artists themselves, and provided audio of an interview with one man from Nigeria.

“We don't know them. We don't know who they are,” said the man.

He expresses little remorse and says the scheme is simple: use stolen identities and then exploit outdated or inadequate government systems.

“They don’t verify anything. What they just check is, is the name and the SSN number the same? Even if they request a driver’s license, they request for photos, we can Photoshop that from over here, and we’ll paste it to them. They don’t really check it,” he said.

“One of the things we have seen specifically, particularly with Illinois, is the fact that there is no driver’s license needed in order to file a claim,” said Hassold. He also said Illinois is a target because of a lack of strong verification measures.

“A lot of money was getting paid out immediately and then they would say 'Wait a minute, this person isn’t actually unemployed,' based on some letters they were sending out,” he said.

“They need to do something,” said McBride.

McBride said it appears she caught the scam before any money was paid out in her husband's name. Still, she says the very fact their identities were stolen is scary.

“We are on a fixed income and people come in and start taking his money away we would lose our house and everything," she said. 

And with the scams clearly so rampant, she and Walker want others to beware.

“Check your mail because any other time, I would have thought it was junk mail and thrown it away,” McBride said.

News 4 asked the Illinois Department of Employment Security for an interview, but was told no one was available in time for this story. In a statement, a spokesperson wrote: "IDES does have a variety of cross-matching efforts in place already and continues to make progress toward implementing new solutions to further frustrate and stop fraudsters from taking action on fraudulent claims."

In a press release on their website, they say they're so sorry for the anxiety this may have caused and they are re-assuring people they will not owe any more money paid out as a result of a fraudulent claim in their name.

If this has happened to you, we have resources for you here. We'll also be reaching out to lawmakers to see how this can be prevented in the future.

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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