PHOENIX (3TV / CBS 5) - Arizona is investigating at least 25 cases of suspected fraudulent unemployment insurance claims related to identity theft, 3 On Your Side has learned.

Brett Bezio, a spokesperson for the state's Department of Economic Security, told 3 On Your Side the cases were referred to the DES office of Inspector General in February and March. DES did not provide data for April or the first part of May, and did not say whether any cases have been referred to federal authorities.

Bezio said the state is "continuously vetting methods and tools for detecting and preventing identity theft within the Arizona [unemployment insurance] program.”

Across the country, the Secret Service said it is investigating a sweeping international fraud ring that’s targeting unemployment systems in several states including Washington, Florida, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island. It's unclear if Arizona's suspected cases of unemployment fraud are connected. According to the Secret Service, the scheme could result in losses in the hundreds of millions. 

"We will track down every lead we have and prosecute those that we can," Roy Dotson, a Secret Service investigator told CBS News. "They just saw the opportunity and seized that opportunity."

Adam Levin, a cyber security expert and founder of CyberScout, said the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect storm for fraudsters to exploit.

"Against this background of hundreds of millions of social security numbers being out there from all the breaches that have occurred in the past, combined with mistakes that people make when they’re online, combined with all the phishing attacks that we see, combined with an environment now that any hacker can make an educated guess about as to the type of people that would be laid off from their jobs," Levin said. "With all that data, they’re going to be going after things like unemployment claims because it’s a fast hit."

Levin said CyberScout's fraud center in Scottsdale is seeing an "inordinantly large percentage" in calls from identity theft victims related to unemployment fraud. In some cases, people have legitimately tried to apply for unemployment, only to be told someone using their information is already are receving benefits. Levin said in many cases, it's difficult to prevent, but he said there are ways for consumers to protect themselves.

"You need to minimize your exposure," he said. "Reduce your attackable surface. You need to monitor so you effectively know as quickly as possible that you have a problem, and you have to have a damage control program."

A plan for damage control could include help from an employer, insurance companies or financial institutions.

"Ask your insurance agent, ask your financial services representative, ask the HR department where you work, 'Do you have a program that can help me if I have an identity incident? Am I in it? If I’m not, what do I have to do to get in it? What is it going to cost me or is it free or deeply discounted because of my relationship with the institution?'" Levin suggested.


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