June Wright opened her mail on July 18 and found an unemployment benefits application from a former employee. The applicant filed an appeal against Backhouse Coffee & Tea Co., which Wright owns with her husband, Ron Wright. The appeal claimed that the local coffee shop refused to pay this former employee’s unemployment benefits.
But there was one problem: This person had never worked for Backhouse Coffee, Wright said.
“It’s a fraud. It should be stopped,” Wright said. “This is a waste of employer time and the tax accountants’ time.”
Over the next few weeks, Backhouse received seven more unemployment application notices through the mail. They were all fraudulent.
But the story isn’t over yet. After contacting the state Department of Labor and Industry and the Office of Unemployment Compensation to report the fraud, Wright was instructed to look at her company benefits online portal. There were over 120 additional fraudulent unemployment applications in the portal, she said.
Backhouse is one of many businesses throughout Williamsport that have received unemployment applications, according to Capt. Jason Yorks, assistant chief of the Williamsport Bureau of Police.
“It’s a substantial amount,” Yorks said. “I don’t know of any of them being successful. They put in the application, but the business has to approve it.”
However, Yorks added that if the business doesn’t check each application, they may simply be approved, and the funds will be released to the fraudulent individuals.
But it’s not just businesses that are scammed, Yorks said. The person whose name is on the application also is a victim in the case, as their identity has been stolen.
Over the past 15 years, 11,000 data breaches exposed personal information for over 1.6 billion people, according to the Pennsylvania State Police and the Department of Labor and Industry.
The data breaches, coupled with an increasing number of individuals on unemployment this past year, means a significant increase in fraud claims.
“Unfortunately, scams and fraud are growing more common while also becoming increasingly more sophisticated,” said state police Deputy Secretary for Financial Services Tim Arthun. “If you are being contacted unexpectedly with a request for your personal or financial information with promises of something that seems too good to be true, it likely is.”
Wright first reported her stack of unemployment applications to the state police but was told she should contact her local police department instead.
Yorks confirmed that local police handle the initial incident details for all fraud cases but are rarely able to move forward with the investigations.
“All we can do is document and have it available for the other major agencies,” Yorks said. “Other than the victims being here … the perpetrator could be anywhere.”
Instead, Yorks said it’s important for individuals and businesses to protect their identity by keeping personal information offline as much as possible. He also stressed that businesses should implement two-step verification when it comes to employee financial information.