To most people, the dark web is a mystery. To others, it is a scary online marketplace where people can buy drugs, guns, counterfeit money, or even login credentials to a stolen Netflix account.
While all of this is true, recently it has also become a booming market for unemployment insurance (UI) fraud “how to” services, where fraudsters can acquire step-by-step guides on how to steal from state employment programs.
For a few dollars more, thieves can buy the “fullz” (dark web slang for a full set of stolen personal data that includes a person’s name, Social Security number, date of birth, address, and more). This is the level of sophistication organized crime has gained in its efforts to steal from governments.
How are they able to run this racket? First, it starts with the supply of stolen identities, which has rapidly increased over the last 15 years. In 2019 alone, over 164 million sensitive records were exposed in the U.S. None of us are safe from this problem. Even the governor of Arkansas’s identity was used to file for UI in his own state.
When COVID-19 hit, states were forced to process 10 to 15 times the typical number of UI claims. On top of this massive challenge, states were asked to disburse Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA, part of the CARES Act) to self-employed Americans who are not covered by traditional UI programs. This meant those Americans would have to validate self-employment income, for the first time ever, with little to no lead time.
This created another problem: People could purchase fake tax returns on the dark web if they wanted to show previous self-employment “income” and fraudulently claim $600 per week in PUA funds. Not surprisingly, some states have found that a lot of their PUA claims are fraudulent.
These moves have opened the floodgates to criminals who use what appear to be payments to 90-year-old bricklayers, 12-year-old barbers, and incarcerated and deceased people to commit fraud on a massive scale. Fraudsters have literally seized on the opportunity to “hide in the herd” of new claimants to rip off the system. The Labor Department’s inspector general estimates that up to $26 billion of UI payments may have gone to fraudsters.
There are three major impacts of crime at this scale. First, the false claims clog the system and delay states’ ability to to get the money out to those who need it. Staff on the front lines have faced an overwhelming increase in fraud attempts and unrealistic pressure from officials to push funds out to keep the economy afloat.
Second, each stolen identity represents a human being. The victim of identity theft will have to deal with the repercussions of the theft. It takes time, money, and emotional exertion to overcome identity theft.
Third, the stolen money funds organized crime. The scale, scope, and sophistication of these crimes can’t be conducted by individual slicksters. There have been numerous reports of how organized crime, both domestic and foreign, is orchestrating UI fraud to fund operations.
Shockingly, much of this $26 billion will be used to fund crimes such as human trafficking, the drug trade, and gun smuggling. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that money stolen from our government programs even helps fund terrorism. In fact, Inspire, the magazine allegedly published by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, ran a story on how to use government programs to fund extremist activities. This complemented its stories on bomb-making methods and instructions on how to carry out terrorist attacks.
Governments are trying their best to reduce fraud and get the funds to those in need—but they are struggling with limited resources and antiquated technology. Often, they are outgunned by the criminals.
Those on the front lines need our help in fighting these crimes, and the resources to help those in need and prevent future fraud. And the authorities need to study the tactics of criminals by monitoring the dark web to identify any vulnerabilities in their process.
We also need to break down the artificial barriers between states so that they are working together against this problem. Criminals cross state lines, so states need to look beyond their borders. Finally, legislatures need to invest in providing those on the front lines with more advanced measures like pattern recognition algorithms to identify large-scale fraud rings.
COVID-19 has significantly changed all of our lives. I hope that it also changes our level of support for detecting and preventing fraud in government programs, so that we can cut off funding to crime rings and send those funds to those who desperately need them. That will safeguard the integrity of our social safety net while making our communities safer.
Jon Coss is vice president of risk, fraud, and compliance at Thomson Reuters.