Fraud causing delays in Pennsylvania unemployment benefits

PITTSBURGH — Unprecedented fraud and identity theft are causing major delays for unemployment recipients in Pennsylvania.

More than 30 people have contacted 11 Investigates in just the past few days, desperate to get answers about why their unemployment claims are not being paid.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry says fraud is a major part of the problem.

Fraudsters have increasingly targeted traditional UC in recent months, which contributes to a backlog of claims awaiting eligibility determinations,” Labor & Industry Press Secretary Alex Peterson wrote to 11 Investigates in an email.

11 Investigates’ Angie Moreschi talked to one Pennsylvania unemployment recipient whose account was hacked. Read on to learn more about what happened.

Account hacked

Ryan, who asked us not to use his last name, had received his unemployment benefits for 23 weeks without a problem, but this week — with just three weeks to go on his 26-week claim — his payments stopped.

He saw the four words “benefit payments control audit” when he tried to file his weekly claim for unemployment benefits on Sunday.

“Thats when I knew there was something wrong, and that’s when I started making calls.”

Ryan says he made endless calls to the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Service Center over the course of three days before finally getting someone who shed some light on the matter.

“They said, ‘Look at your banking information,’ and I said I don’t have banking information because I use a debit card (to get benefit payments),” he explained.

They urged him to look anyway.

“They said, ‘Just go there, there may be banking information there,’ so I clicked it anyway.”

That’s when he saw it.

“I told them it said, ‘Wells Fargo,’ and they said, ‘Oh, you’re one of the Wells Fargo people.’”

Ryan says the employee wouldn’t tell him anything else, but he doesn’t have a Wells Fargo account and never has. That’s when he says he realized his UC account had been hacked.

“I just want to know — is my information safe, and if they got my info what they got. I think I have the right to know what’s really going on,” Ryan said, frustrated that it’s been so difficult to get information about what happened.

He did some digging on his own, searching through his account to discover that someone had tried to switch his payment information from debit card to direct deposit. He took a screen shot and showed 11 Investigates. It showed that on Nov. 28 someone using the name Pat McDermott requested that Ryan’s payment type be changed from debit card to direct deposit.

His account also showed someone from L&I staff switched his payment type back to debit card on Dec. 28. That was exactly one month after the potential hack and after Ryan filed his latest claim for benefits this week.

Unprecedented fraud

The state has told 11 Investigates that the PA Unemployment Compensation System has experienced an unprecedented level of fraud during the pandemic, and it’s recently gotten even worse.

L&I spokesperson Alex Peterson said Pennsylvania’s system for filing UC claims uses numerous fraud-detection measures, including virtual identity verification vendor ID.me to verify the identities of all new unemployment applicants.

Peterson also said the department has stopped more than $4.7 billion in fraud attempts over the past six months but did not answer the question when asked how much was actually stolen and not recovered.

When 11 Investigates followed up to ask specifically if the state was the target of a breach involving Wells Fargo, another spokesperson emailed saying, “The earliest we’d be able to get you a response would be Monday because most folks are off until then for the holiday.”

Waiting game

Luckily, Ryan ignored pop-up requests on his account over the past month asking that he update his information. He believes that prevented the hacker from successfully switching his payments from his debit card to direct deposit.

“They needed me to verify my identity to prove that it was me doing that,” he said.

In the meantime, Ryan’s account was flagged for potential fraud. He got an ID Theft notice from the state and instructions on what to do while the state investigates.

“Call (the) fraud hotline, then file a fraud report, then file a police report, then call the Pennsylvania state treasury. I’ve done all of them,” Ryan said.

Now, he’s in limbo, his account frozen and benefits stopped, waiting for answers.

“It’s a bigger mess than they want you to believe it is,” he said.

What to do

If you suspect you could be the victim of fraud on your Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation account, you can file a fraud report here or call the fraud hotline for assistance at 1-800-692-7469 to leave a voice message.

Recognize and avoid general UC scams

  • Take these additional steps to protect yourself against general unemployment scams:
  • Never give out your personal information over email, text message, or social media messages.
  • Don’t wire money, and always ignore the following requests:
  • Communications related to your UC benefits from someone asking for money;
  • Someone who says they can help you file for your benefits for a fee;
  • Anyone claiming to work for L & I who says they need a fee to complete your application.
  • Don’t open or respond to unsolicited emails or text messages.
  • Never give out your personal information on websites or social media channels – especially those that claim they can help you apply for UC benefits or resolve your issues. Third parties can’t apply for your benefits.
  • Don’t trust or rely on UC info from unofficial websites – always visit www.uc.pa.gov for Pennsylvania unemployment program information.
  • If you need UC Benefits, always visit www.benefits.pa.gov, and do not file on any other site.

L&I makes regular announcements on its social media pages and website regarding new fraud tactics and other important information. Please follow L&I on Facebook and Twitter and check our website regularly for updates.