The state said Thursday it has launched a new identity verification tool it says will help fight unemployment benefit fraud.
The digital tool, ID.me — an online platform already partnered with hundreds of federal and state agencies, health care organizations, financial institutions and retailers — has been integrated into the state’s unemployment application process.
Under the new system, state residents who file an unemployment claim will receive an email or text message from the state asking them to use ID.me to verify their identity online.
Traditionally, New Yorkers who had to provide additional identity documentation when making a claim, would need to provide copies of their birth certificate, passports and other documents. Review of these documents by Labor Department staff often took weeks to complete.
The new digital tool will help "fight unemployment benefit fraud and help New Yorkers with bona fide claims verify their identities and receive benefits faster," the state said.
The tool will "add to the Department of Labor's constantly-expanding arsenal of weapons to combat fraud," Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon said in a statement. "Every day, we leverage highly experienced investigators, artificial intelligence, and other sophisticated techniques to identify fraud as quickly as possible, stop these criminals in their tracks, and protect New Yorkers' unemployment system."
Additionally, the state has launched a new web page with a step-by-step guide for protecting their identity.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Labor Department has identified 521,000 fraudulent claims and has stopped more than $6.4 billion in payments to fraudsters, state data shows. During that same time, the state has paid out more than $70 billion in "legitimate unemployment benefits" to 4.2 million New Yorkers.
The state said the "vast majority" of fraudulent jobless claims were caught before any payments were disbursed.
The upgraded process will be "particularly impactful" for identity theft victims who go on to file legitimate benefit claims and have to prove their identity, the state said.
For some, the new tools could have helped prevent a great deal of frustration.
Casey Caldwell, a resident of Troy, New York, who lost his job in November, said a claim made by a fraudster last year has led to delays in the processing of his recent unemployment claim.
Caldwell said the issues started in October, a month before he was let go, when a former roommate had forwarded a letter meant for him from the Department of Labor. Knowing he hadn’t filed for any jobless aid, Caldwell immediately notified his boss and called the Labor Department.
"I thought I had done what I needed to do," he said. "I thought all was good."
The following month, Caldwell filed a jobless claim only to learn that someone had sought financial aid using his identity.
After providing three forms of identification and speaking with staffers at the state agency, Caldwell reached out to a local assemblyman to get his case cleared faster. In the meantime, he worries about finances.
"I’m really in dire need of income to pay rent and to eat," he said. "I’ve just been living off of the little savings I have."
Liz Uzzo, senior vice president and chief human resource officer for Melville-based H2M architects + engineers, said fraudulent claims have become more common since the start of the pandemic.
Uzzo, whose company employs nearly 500 across the state and New Jersey, said she has seen around a dozen, patently fraudulent unemployment claims come across her desk since March last year.
"When somebody files a claim with the Department of Labor, fraudulent or not, we get a notice," Uzzo said.
The name, Social Security number and other identifying information listed in the notice may be correct. The only problem is that the worker in question is gainfully employed, and on several occasions, have been executives with the firm.
When she gets a notice, she notifies the state and the employee of the fraud. But given the massive backlog in processing of claims the state faced earlier last year, some phony claims may have been paid by the state, Uzzo said.
"It’s disgusting because somebody is preying on these poor people," she said. "It makes me sick that someone would take advantage of a situation like this."
For more information on what to do if someone becomes the victim of identity theft, the state recommends visiting www.IdentityTheft.gov. To learn about the state's process in handling unemployment insurance fraud, visit www.dol.ny.gov/report-fraud. Anyone who receives a determination letter from the Labor Department, but did not file a benefits claim, should immediately file a report by visiting on.ny.gov/uifraud.