PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Identity thieves have been fraudulently applying for, and in some cases getting access to Arizona unemployment benefits, according to officials from the Department of Economic Security.

One of the indicators of this happening is that unemployment benefits cards are showing up in seemingly random mailboxes across the state. "It started in mid-July when our tenants were moving out," said Victoria Coursey, who owns rental homes across the Valley.

Coursey says she received ten envelopes from DES, addressed to people who never lived in her rentals. "Nobody that lives here applied for unemployment - ever," said Coursey. "I think there's some big fraud going on somewhere. And I think it's a really bad problem because it's taking away money from people who really need it and putting it on cards that are going where? We don't know where," said Coursey.

She's not the only one receiving these cards. CBS 5 Investigates received emails and phone calls from roughly ten other people who described similar situations. At least two of them received cards addressed to other people, while they were waiting for benefits themselves.

Extra $300 a week in unemployment ends for Arizonans, DES says

"We've been waiting seven weeks now for benefits," said one woman, who agreed to tell her story on the condition her identity remains protected. She says the live events and video company she owns experienced a large downturn in business this year, so she filed for benefits. After moving to a new home, she thinks she might have made a mistake on a new benefits form.

She says she stopped receiving her benefits as DES investigated her claim. But she started receiving cards with other people's names on them. "Right now, I have a stack," she said. "It doesn't make any sense."

DES officials say they have seen an unprecedented amount of fraud during the pandemic. "Fraud is a nationwide problem and it's definitely affected our ability to do our work in Arizona," said Michael Wisehart, who is the director of DES. He says there are normally around 3.4 million workers in Arizona. This year, 2.8 million have applied for unemployment benefits."Now, while unemployment is high. Obviously, numerically, that doesn't make sense," said Wisehart.

Asked specifically about the benefits cards showing up at seemingly random addresses, Wisehart said the scenario created a unique problem. He said the state could not just "flag" addresses where multiple cards were headed.

"We took steps to make sure we got as many eligible people paid as possible. And in certain circumstances, when you talk about homeless shelters or other community living environments, there would be valid reasons why multiple people would receive unemployment mail at the same address," said Wisehart.

Officials from DES say many of the names on the cards were stolen during data breaches from large corporations. Those names and profiles have since been bought and sold on the dark web.

Victoria Coursey said some of the names she looked up were historical figures. At least one was a prison inmate in North Carolina.

If you want to report DES benefits fraud, you can find the hotline and website here.

Morgan Loew's hard-hitting investigations can be seen weekdays on CBS 5 News at 6:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.

Copyright 2020 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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