DWD warns of scams that mimic unemployment insurance program

By: - April 2, 2021 6:30 am
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A spike in fraud has bedeviled Wisconsin’s unemployment compensation system — but the problem is not what it sounds like.

Over the last decade, the Legislature has made it harder for people to apply for and collect unemployment insurance (UI). Lawmakers have claimed that such changes were needed to prevent applicants from defrauding the system, among other reasons.

With higher barriers, fewer people qualify for jobless pay than did a decade ago. And the need to adjudicate more claims is one reason that claims backlogs skyrocketed in the crush of layoffs that arose in the COVID-19 pandemic.

This week, the Department of Workforce Development (DWD) reported fraud of a different kind — one that turns jobless people into victims.

The agency is encountering a raft of phishing email attacks and fake social media accounts that spoof its own UI division — scams to steal personal information from people with UI claims.

One scam is a fake email coming from an account calling itself “Wisconsin Department of Workforce.” The message purports to seek a person’s UI information and includes a link to an online document, where the recipient is prompted to enter personal information. But it’s not the real DWD site, the department warns.

DWD has also encountered phony Facebook pages purporting to represent the department. Operators of one imposter account were using it to interact with people who commented on DWD’s real Facebook page.

Facebook removed one fake page Wednesday after DWD intervened and a second one on Thursday. The department has also reported several Twitter accounts that DWD says were conducting phishing attacks for users’ personal data.

The department’s genuine social media accounts are verified with a blue checkmark.

“At this point, we haven’t seen any indications that people have fallen victim to this latest round of phishing scams, but of course we’re probably not aware of all the different fake emails and fraudulent social media posts that are out there,” DWD’s communications director, Amy Barrilleaux, tells the Wisconsin Examiner.

These phishing schemes have surfaced as DWD has unveiled a revamped web portal for UI applicants and recipients. The portal has been designed to make the process of filing claims easier and includes instructions that use plain language instead of the sometimes complex and confusing wording that was in place before, according to department officials.

“It’s certainly possible that this uptick in [phishing] activity could be related to the new portal or our rollout of the federal benefit extensions over the last couple of days,” Barrilleaux says. “Other states have encountered similar waves of fraud and scams over the past several months.”

DWD’s updated UI portal also, for the first time, enables claimants to securely upload documents related to their claims, instead of having to mail or fax them in.

But “while unemployment insurance claims specialists and adjudicators can send secure messages through the UI claims portal, they will never request information through email,” a DWD announcement warning of the phishing scams states.

Besides the phishing scams, DWD’s help desk has been fielding “an unusually high number” of calls from people seeking to reset passwords or authorize their accounts, according to the department. Most of those appear to be the work of identity thieves, and UI fraud investigators have been verifying such calls before changing account information, DWD reports.

DWD is urging people who receive a request for personal information and want to verify whether it really came from the state’s UI division to call (414) 435-7069, or toll free at (844) 910-3661. The agency also has information at dwd.wisconsin.gov/ui/fraud/.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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