Prosecutors say criminals are seizing on a surge in job losses during the coronavirus pandemic to carry out unemployment fraud schemes targeting workers at some of Nassau's colleges, villages and school districts by using their identities to submit phony claims for job-loss benefits.
Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said Wednesday that a fraudulent ring, or rings, stole the identities of about 400 workers in what she called "a far-reaching scheme" and filed claims for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits since March.
"The COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc in so many homes ... and the Department of Labor is trying to get funds to people who need it because they lost their jobs and now here comes these rings or these criminals who seize on that," Singas said Wednesday in a phone interview. "I wanted to make sure that we get the word out to our communities that they should be on the lookout for this."
The claims were made in the names of employees at places including Nassau Community College, Hofstra University, Northwell Health, the villages of Valley Stream, East Williston and Herricks, and several local school districts, according to prosecutors.
Singas said her office, which is investigating in cooperation with the state Department of Labor and the employers, is working to uncover the fraudulent claims and prevent payouts on them.
Authorities believe the fraudsters have been able to steal tens of thousands of dollars already.
Many victims didn’t know they were targeted until they got a letter from the state saying their unemployment benefit claim had been approved, according to authorities, who haven't made any arrests yet.
Some victims also got a debit card loaded with funds. But prosecutors said the fraudsters were able to divert other such debit cards to themselves at other addresses.
Authorities said the fraudsters tend to target employees at the management level so they can try to collect more money in benefits and because those workers tend to still be employed and haven’t already applied for unemployment benefits.
The Nassau district attorney’s office said none of the victims had applied for unemployment benefits, and all still had jobs.
There’s no evidence the crimes involved any hacking of the employers, according to prosecutors, who believe the victims' identities could have been stolen on the Dark Web.
State Labor Department Commissioner Roberta Reardon said in a statement Wednesday that it was "despicable that criminals would exploit a global pandemic to attempt to defraud our unemployment safety net," and the fight against such schemes would continue.
Singas is asking any workers who believe they may have fallen victim to the scheme to call her office's Financial Crimes Bureau at 516-571-2149.
Prosecutors also are encouraging any victims of identity theft to go online and place a free fraud alert with national credit bureaus Experian, Equifax or TransUnion.
They said anyone can go to annualcreditreport.com to run a free credit report and check for any suspicious activity.