Relief benefits scammers in Chicago aren't backing off

Last month, like so many other Americans, Shirley Urbauer lost her job in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Illinois, due to a lack of work caused by the COVID pandemic. It’s still a hard time to find yourself out of work, so Shirley must have been relieved to receive a letter from the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) informing her that a debit card was on the way to her. The card would be filled with $300 per week until she either found new employment or the benefits program expired. This report would have all the makings for a relatively happy ending were it not for one small problem. Shirley Urbauer died in 2015.

Her son, Joe Urbauer, still lives at the same address that he shared with his mother. He told CBS News in Chicago that last year he received letters at his address containing the names and social security numbers of more than a dozen people he had never heard of, all designated to begin sending payments. He complained to IDES and was told that the problem was being resolved and he wasn’t in any trouble. But when the scammers tried to set up an account in his deceased mother’s name, that was apparently a bridge too far.

“To me it sounds like it’s an inside job, that somebody inside IDES knows how to get around the system and is working the system,” said Joe Urbauer of Alsip.

Last week’s family mail included a letter from IDES about their matriarch, Shirley. The letter says she was laid off for lack of work. And that “a debit card will be issued to you within the next 7 days” for that claim she made Sunday, March 7, 2021.

“Which is impossible because my mother passed away in 2015,” Joe said. “We have a copy of the death certificate from the state of Illinois. They have to have a record of her being deceased.”

That wasn’t the end of this story of fraud. The letter Joe received contained a letter that was supposed to be sent back verifying the identity of the recipient. (That would be the deceased mother in this case.) Once the form was received by IDES, a phone number would have to be called to activate the card when it arrived. Joe never sent the form back. No phone call was made. But the card still arrived anyway and was activated for use.

A representative for IDES told CBS that they double-check claims against a “death file list.” But if that’s the case, how did the claim ever get approved in the first place? And even if there was an oversight in their death file list, how was the card sent when the verification form was never received? Joe Urbauer is convinced that this is an inside job being pulled off by someone at IDES. Others are fairly sure that this is the work of an organized ring of fraudsters who know the system inside and out and have figured out a way to game it. I suppose the possibility exists that it’s both, with a ring of scammers having conspired with some employee inside the agency.

It would be one thing if Joe’s case were some rare exception to the rules, but it isn’t. The Chicago Tribune reports that Illinois blocked more than 350,000 fraudulent claims last year between March and December. (And those are only the ones they managed to catch.) From last June until this January, the Illinois Attorney General’s office has received more than 1,400 complaints from people saying that someone else falsely opened an unemployment claim in their name. The losses are well into the tens of millions of dollars at this point. Sadly, the use of debit cards for payments has made it far easier for scammers to hack their way in and withdraw money from such accounts until the claim is finally canceled, even if they are operating from outside the country.

The Illinois unemployment system simply wasn’t prepared for an onslaught of this many people. They rushed to approve every claim so they wouldn’t be accused of leaving people without income, but fraudsters rushed into the void to take advantage of the system. This systemic abuse is still going on today. If the state doesn’t upgrade their computer systems and claims processing procedures as quickly as possible, they will have nobody but themselves to blame. There will be other big economic downturns in the future, whether they are caused by pandemics or other disasters. It’s time to bring these systems kicking and screaming into the 21st century.