School’s out for summer, and some fraudsters with stolen identity information apparently see that as an opportunity to cash in.
School districts across the state, including some in the Tulsa area, are reporting a sudden uptick in fraudulent unemployment claims for people still employed in schools. State officials say such claims have soared nationally since a massive data breach in September 2017 at one of the nation’s largest credit reporting companies exposed the personal information of 145.5 million U.S. consumers.
Union Public Schools reported receiving nearly 30 such claims in the past two weeks, compared to less than 20 in a typical year.
“One day last week, 20 claims came through in one minute. They appear to be taking advantage of the fact that it’s a holiday week and people are out (of the office),” said Jay Loegering, executive director of human resources at Union. “Some school districts close for a couple of weeks or a month during the summer, and if you don’t respond within a certain period of time, those funds automatically get paid out.”
Oklahoma State School Boards Association represents 370 of Oklahoma’s 512 school districts on unemployment claims.
“Based on what we know, there has been a tremendous increase this year, going from almost none to large amounts,” said Brandon Carey, an attorney at OSSBA. “Since January, we have received 337 fraudulent claims for districts we represent, compared to 10 in a typical year previously.”
The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission gives employers a 10-day window to respond to unemployment claims before payments could be sent out. That has had school officials and employees at OSSBA working for them on these matters scrambling.
“What we do is make sure we are responding quickly. A lot of times these are individuals currently working for districts who have had their information stolen. The district needs to contact the employee quickly and get them to write out a statement that can be sent to OESC fraud hotline,” Carey said.
And even if there is obviously flawed information on the claim, such as mismatched Social Security numbers and names or even misspelled names, Loegering said the state has paid out on some fraudulent claims.
“We have to answer each one of these like it’s a true claim,” he said. “We have to pull employment records and we’re getting written statements from employees that they are still employed with us. We have been instructing our employees to file police reports because the employee would be earning income that’s reported to IRS that they don’t know about and didn’t receive — so there are consequences both for employer and employees.”
Government entities, including public schools, pay the actual costs of unemployment benefits for their eligible, former employees through reimbursement to the state insurance fund.
“All districts get a quarterly statement of unemployment payments. We are emphasizing the need to respond quickly if they have any indication that this is fraud to contact the fraud hotline and closely review their quarterly statements,” said Carey. “For our members, we do a lot of that work for them. It has been really busy. The bigger districts were getting most of the fraudulent claims earlier in the year. That seems to be spreading, and there has been an uptick in the Tulsa area and those suburban districts.”
Shalonda Sanders, compliance director at the state Employment Security Commission, said the agency has been implementing new safeguards to try to prevent and identify possible fraud.
“We started noticing it late last year. It’s really been a national trend, unfortunately,” said Sanders. “It’s these gangs of people in different states — Florida, Georgia, Michigan and even in New York and some in California — through the dark web they’ve identified and gotten access to people’s information and are trying to access unemployment and other places where they can get money.”
She added: “We want the community to be aware and our employers could help us by communicating with us as quickly as possible to prevent fraudulent claims being paid out.”
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