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How scammers are using stolen identities to file unemployment claims amid the coronavirus pandemic

The Seniors Vs. Crime director in Clinton County says he's officially handling two cases right now for unemployment fraud. Before COVID, he had zero cases.

CLINTON, Iowa — Benign as they seem, in some cases a letter in the mail or a message on social media can be a sign someone is trying to steal your identity.

Randy Meier, director of the Seniors Vs. Crime program in Clinton, says he's heard from several people who have gotten unemployment letters in the mail. The thing is, they never filed for unemployment themselves.

"I've seen unemployment money coming in from Indiana, Arizona," he says.

Meier says the letters frequently come from out of state but not always. He thinks scammers may have gotten people's personal info during the Equifax data breach back in 2017.

Between only a hand full of cases, Meier says scammers got $50,000 out of the unemployment system.

"So, what that tells us is this is not some very simple little deal," he says. "This is a fairly complicated criminal conspiracy."

And some scammers are taking it a step further. Meier says they'll message strangers on social media, strike up a budding romance, then ask their new sweethearts to transfer the ill-gotten unemployment money. These victims have no idea they're being used in a scam. But Meier says they're still on the hook for the damages.

"Money that comes into your account, you're responsible for it," he explains. "So if you take that money out and send it on, even if you think you're doing the right thing, you're still responsible for it."

Small business owners are also at risk. Meier says scammers have used other people's info to apply for Small Business Association loans during the pandemic and after natural disasters. 

Meier says one of the best things you can do right now: freeze your credit. Contact the three major credit report companies and implement a freeze. He says you'll get a pin code to lift the freeze easily whenever you're ready.

This way, Meier says any background checks for loans will turn up some red flags.

If you think you've been a victim of a scam, Meier says to contact your local law enforcement and your bank to help prevent any more damage to your credit or name.

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