In identity theft cases apparently connected to last year’s massive Equifax data breach, some Mainers are reporting that fake unemployment claims are being filed in their name, even though they remain employed and never made a claim.

“I’ve been employed at my company for 36 years, and I know everyone,” said Matt Masse of East Vassalboro, who learned his identity was used to file a fake claim. “The HR (Human Relations) lady called me and she was laughing and said you’re not unemployed, are you?”

Masse said another employee at the same company also had a fake claim filed in his name the same week. When Masse called the state unemployment fraud line, a phone representative walked him through the process of contesting the claim – and said they’d had other, similar, claims.

“I told her I need to know whether someone really got ahold of my identity,” Masse said. “I was interviewing her and she got to the breaking point and she said ‘we’ve had thousands of these since our new computer system went in in December.’ ”

In an email, department officials denied seeing an increase in fake claims.

“We are not seeing an abnormal volume of unemployment fraud,” read a statement from spokeswoman Laura Hudson. “Nor would our fraud staff link any potential fraud activity to a particular breach because we have no way of knowing where personally identifiable information originated in these instances. We encourage anyone who believes that their identity is being misused to report it immediately.”

The human resources director at MaineToday Media, which had two employees’ identities used in fake claims, said a state worker told him the claims were tied to the Equifax hack.

“The lady I spoke to (at the Department of Labor) was very nice and helpful,” Paul Van Savage said. “She explained that this goes back to the Equifax breach – it all stems from that, and they are still getting pinged with unemployment claims.”

Unemployment claims are initiated by the person who is laid off. When that person makes a claim with the state, the department sends paperwork to the employer to verify dates of employment and other information.

What appears to have happened in these false claim cases is that hackers kept the employee and employer data, and the Social Security numbers, but changed the address and bank account data for those employees.

Other states, including Michigan and New York, have issued warnings or had news accounts of unemployment claim fraud as a result of the Equifax hack.

Van Savage said he got the first fake claim in August, and while he was filing paperwork rebutting the claim, the second fake claim landed. When he called, he learned that the department had already sent the first unemployment check to one employee – by direct deposit. The employee never received it.

State unemployment fraud department officials told Van Savage that the employee would not be held responsible for repaying the money. The department immediately froze the claims, and the employers are scheduled for phone interviews with department officials as part of the appeals process to unwind the situation.

Businesses are not immediately hurt financially by such false claims, but it can increase the cost of unemployment insurance for businesses and the state can wind up paying out on fake claims. State officials were not available to say whether they were trying to recover the money.

The Maine Department of Labor is under scrutiny this year over the rocky rollout of a new unemployment claims system. The state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability is investigating claims outlined in an internal memo that alleged poor training and the destruction of complaints logged by users frustrated in their attempts to get jobless benefits.

Rep. Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, said he had not heard from the department or constituents about fake unemployment claims tied to Equifax, but urged employers and employees affected to contact their lawmakers or members of the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development.

“I remain troubled by the dysfunction we are witnessing at the Maine Department of Labor. If thousands of people have potentially had their employment information hacked, the legislative committee of oversight should have been notified and we were not,” Fecteau said Thursday.

As many as 147.9 million consumers have been affected in some way by the Equifax breach, which amounts to about half the country. The credit reporting agency said in September that hackers gained access to sensitive personal data – Social Security numbers, birth dates and home addresses – for up to 143 million Americans, then later increased the number affected as their investigation continued.

Equifax said the breach began in May and continued until it was discovered in late July. It said hackers exploited a “website application vulnerability” and obtained personal data about British and Canadian consumers as well as Americans. Social Security numbers and birth dates are particularly sensitive data, giving those who possess them the ingredients for identity fraud and other crimes.

Equifax is one of the three major clearinghouses for Americans’ credit histories.

Fake claims can be reported to the state Department of Labor through a form on their website or by calling 1-800-845-5808.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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