Local man becomes victim of COVID-19-fueled spike in unemployment fraud

WINDERMERE. Fla. — A Windermere man could not believe the state of Texas demanded he pay back jobless benefits stolen by a scammer using his identity.

Action 9 found thousands of identity theft cases just like this as COVID-19 unemployment claims swamped state agencies.

“He’s never lived in Texas. He never worked in Texas.” Jeanie Rahman is waging a one-woman battle with the state of Texas to protect her husband James’ identity.

Consumer investigator Todd Ulrich met the couple outside their Windermere home where they discovered a scammer used James Rahman’s identity to apply for unemployment insurance benefits.

“We immediately drafted a letter that day and sent it to them by fax,” Jeanie Rahman said.

She sent the letter to the Texas Workforce Commission and included documents to prove someone had stolen her husband’s identity.

“Driver’s license, social security cards, passport, electric bill,” Jeanie Rahman said.

But then the Rahmans received documents from the agency showing $1,700 in payments were delivered to the scammer’s bank account.

It got worse. Later, the Texas Workforce Commission demanded the real James Rahman repay the state $828 because of a benefits overpayment.

“And now they want you to pay?” Ulrich asked.

“Yes, pay it back,” Jeanie Rahman replied.

The Rahmans say all their calls and emails didn’t change anything, and they feared collection attempts could be next.

“Very disturbing because you don’t know where it’s going to go or where it’s going to end,” James Rahman said.

Since last March, state unemployment agencies have been flooded with real COVID-19 job claims, but that gave criminals an opportunity to steal benefits using fake identities.

The FBI put out a warning last summer telling potential victims that ID theft was soaring because of phony jobless claims.

“It’s an absolute dramatic increase. It’s unbelievable the percentage increase,” said Eva Velasquez with the Identity Theft Resource Center. She says her agency received 1,000 jobless benefit ID theft complaints in a year.

Velasquez says the scam has swamped state agencies that have to resolve each complaint.

“Please, you have to go back to the state agency, be persistent, continue to report it and document everything,” Velazquez urged.

Just days after Ulrich contacted the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency notified the Rahmans and told them that their case is closed and that as victims of ID theft, they don’t owe the state anything.

“I don’t hold out hope that it’s going to end quickly,” James Rahman said.

Like any ID theft victims should do, the Rahmans notified all three credit bureaus and placed fraud alerts and freezes on their accounts.

For the steps you should take to protect yourself from fraud, visit identitytheft.gov.

Todd Ulrich, WFTV.com

I am WFTV's Action 9 Reporter.