Many Mainers have experienced identity theft for unemployment fraud – here is what can be done
You have probably seen the news about thousands of Mainers being victims to scammers falsely filing for unemployment under their names (BDN, May 28, “Maine probing scores of claims as fraudsters target stressed unemployment system”). This is extremely scary and an awful time to have to deal with it. Maine does seem to be on top of it more quickly than other states. Unfortunately, I personally have been part of at least 4 security breaches in the last five years, mostly for my credit card at big box stores, like Home Depot. The worst part was when my personal information, including my social security number, was stolen when I worked for the Federal Government way back in the 1990s. Credit card numbers and passwords can be changed, social security numbers cannot (generally).
First Level – Immediate Steps: If you are notified of being a victim of unemployment fraud or if you find out via a phone call or letter that you are now receiving unemployment and you shouldn’t be, here is what is recommended:
- Call at least one of the 3 credit bureaus to report the fraud – I would suggest you call all 3. At the same time, you can also ask them to put a freeze on your credit so that no new accounts can be opened in your name – usually is frozen for two years until you request to unfreeze them. Equifax: 1-888-766-0008 / Experian: 1-888-397-3742 / TransUnion 1-800-680-7289
- Let your bank know to look out for suspicious transactions on your bank accounts and credit cards. You may want to ask for a new credit or debit card if you think those numbers have been compromised. The more you communicate with your bank on what is happening, the more they will want to help you and make things right. They are on your side in these cases.
- Report the incident at the US Federal Trade Commission at identitytheft.gov or 1-877-438-4338.
- Notify the Maine Department of Labor for unemployment fraud. It may not be worth waiting on line for a phone call so you might want to do it online: www.maine.gov/unemployment/idtheft. Unfortunately, you could typically call the Maine Attorney General’s office but there are reports that they are not taking any new complaints right now.
- Report the incident to your local police department. While there is not much they can do, this protects you legally that you did your best when you make a claim for lost funds or to not pay a debt incurred.
Second Level – Ongoing Steps
- Change your passwords on critical accounts like banking and your primary email accounts. I may use a generic password for silly website requirements to register and access something, but when it comes to financial websites or personal email, each account has its own separate password with lots of letters, numbers and punctuation marks that do not spell out any words in the English language – example – instead of “ILoveMickeyMouse” – do “1L0v3M1ckeyM0u53!” It can be a pain but is worth it.
- Be really careful of what personal info you share online and on social media– are you sure you want to share your address and your exact birthday on Facebook? It’s nice to get birthday wishes. But Facebook does not need to know your exact birthday for you to get birthday wishes. I always put in a fake year on social media – 1910 is usually my go to – they don’t need to know my exact birthday – just that I am over 18 years old.
- Hold back info when they really don’t need it. When I know someone like my son’s daycare already has the information or they just don’t need it, I leave it blank – do they really need my social security number for the 4th time? The more paper with your information out there – the more the chance is that it will get misplaced. If they really need it or want something like my social security number, I do not email it or write it down, I tell them verbally in person or over the phone.
- Shred the paper you get from financial institutions. The best, low cost trick is to shred by hand into two different waste baskets and empty them on different weeks.
- Check your credit report three times a year for free. Each credit reporting agency is required to provide you with a credit report once a year by law for free – you can get it at ww.annualcreditreport.com. I like to spread this out over the year – so for example, request one in January, one in May and one in September. Check and make sure the debt accounts are correct but also that your previous addresses and employers are correct.
- Don’t click or talk to them – go to the original source! When you get an email or call from a sensitive source like the government or bank that you were not expecting, don’t click on anything or talk to the person on the other end. Look up the website or phone number of the institution and contact them that way directly. When you google a company, be careful not to click on the top 2-3 links – those are paid ads that may not be the company you are looking for. Scroll down a few lines until you find the precise website of the company you are looking for.
- Be careful where you use your debit card. Many financial advisors suggest you use debit cards so you are not accruing debt on your credit card. I rarely use my debit card to be honest. If you can, you can pay off your credit cards each month. The reason for this is that credit card funds is OPM – other people’s money. Debit cards are your money – most banks will return the funds to your bank account – BUT – there are a lot more protections on credit cards that if you suspect fraud and you report it in a timely manner, then you will not have to pay those funds. I would be very careful of using debit cards at places like gas station pumps, other easily accessible payment locations, like vending machines, and stores you do not frequent or when you travel in new, unknown places. Never use your debit card for online purchases if you can swing it. Get a low-balance credit card of $500 – $1000 to make online purchases and pay it off at the end of the month.
Third Level – High Security Concerns. In general, Consumer Reports suggests following the low-cost ways above. But in my case, I know that my social security number was stolen and it will likely be out in the “Dark Web” for the rest of my life and beyond. If you think that someone has stolen extremely sensitive information beyond credit card numbers or passwords, you may want to take on a monitoring service that sends you monthly updates and immediate alerts if there are any major changes. But it can cost up to $15 a month. These services can monitor not only credit cards but emails, bank accounts, social security numbers for your family, home address, driver’s license number, and passport number. Here are some possible options if you have concerns:
- Check out your bank or credit card company’s website first. My credit union offers free credit monitoring now.
- Did your credit or debit card get compromised at one of these security breaches? If it did, the company should be offering you free monitoring for at least a year if not 2-3 years. In 2019 alone, Marriott, Capital One, T Mobile, and Dunkin Donuts had breaches! And that is only the big names and less than 5% of what happened. Here is a list since the 2000s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_data_breaches.
- All three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, offer monitoring services – this will cost between $10-$15 a month.
- There are services like Lifelock that monitor much more than credit such as your social security number and bank accounts. These also will cost money on a monthly basis.
For more information on what you can do when there is a problem or how to protect yourself, here are some more sites to visit:
- US Federal Trade Commission – Identity Theft page: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft
- Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC): https://www.idtheftcenter.org/
- MaineStream also has a site on Personal Finance during COVID-19 and a section on scams
Originally published June 1, 2020.
To find out more about Personal Finance issues during COVID-19, go here.