Coronavirus took a Manhattan woman’s job, then identity thieves stole her unemployment benefits.

Sandye Wilson, 60, was laid off in October from her job as an executive assistant at a large tech company. After her severance ran out, she tried to contact the state and claim unemployment. After weeks unsuccessfully navigating the bureaucracy, she realized someone was already cashing in on her misfortune.

Using her social security number and other private information, an identity thief set up an account with the Department of Labor and claimed more than $2,000 in unemployment benefits.

“Of course I’m frustrated. I had a vibe something was not right,” Wilson, of the Lower East Side, said. “There’s fraud going on. It’s so widespread. There are a number of people this is happening to.”

That’s an understatement.

New York State has identified more than 425,000 fraudulent unemployment benefit claims during the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing fraudsters from stealing more than $5.5 billion in benefits, according to the Labor Department. The majority of bogus claims, according to the agency, have been discovered before any money was issued to the wrong recipient.

Detecting the fraud is no easy task given the volume of unemployment claims. The Department of Labor has paid over $65 billion to more than 4 million New Yorkers, representing more than 30 typical years’ worth of benefits paid in just 11 months.

“Unemployment fraud is, sadly, a scourge that we have to fight every day, but it is particularly despicable that criminals would use a global pandemic as cover to attempt to defraud our system,” said Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon. “Our team is using technology, including artificial intelligence and other sophisticated techniques, to identify fraud as quickly as possible and stop these criminals in their tracks.”

Wilson said her predicament was exacerbated by challenges getting someone on the phone. She spent several weeks in January unsuccessfully calling the Labor Department’s phone line for unemployment insurance. She then tried to resolve the issue online and discovered someone was claiming her benefits. Once she realized she was a victim of fraud, she easily got Labor reps on the phone.

She was grateful for her savings, which meant she wasn’t desperate for cash.

“My situation is messed up — I’m pissed — but it made me think about other people in dire straits whose benefits are being stolen. How are they being helped?” she asked.

People do not become victims unemployment fraud because the state system is compromised, labor officials said. It’s because personal information, like social security numbers and birth dates were stolen through a hack of a bank, insurance company, employer or other institution. The Labor Department recommends visiting IdentityTheft.gov for information about how to protect one’s personal information, such as changing passwords. Free fraud alerts and credit reports are also helpful preventative measures.

Wilson still didn’t have a grasp on how her information was swiped.

“That for me is the scary thing. I don’t know the scope,” she said.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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