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A woman in a mask leaving an employment office.
A woman leaves after checking information signs at the IDES (Illinois Department of Employment Security) WorkNet center in Arlington Heights. Illinois reports biggest spike in unemployment claims of all states. ORG XMIT: ILNH104
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Fed flaw sends unemployment fraud letters

Illinois informed thousands of employees the unemployment benefits they never applied for are on the way.

There are many ways to find out you’ve been fired. The classic “Could you come into my office?” delivered with grim faux casualness on a Friday afternoon. The mass layoff email. Chicago radio folks sometimes learn of their professional demise in a Robert Feder column.

I was informed of my unemployment by letter, on Monday, Nov. 16. About 4 p.m. I was about to walk the dog and checked the mail. There was an innocuous window envelope from a P.O. Box in Springfield. Its very blankness screamed, “Open me!”

“UI Finding” the letter was headed. For a moment I thought it was UL, Underwriters Laboratories. Then a few key phrases caught my eye: “Last Employer” and “Unemployed Reason: Laid-Off (Lack of Work)” and “Last Day Worked: 04/29/2020.”

I took off my coat. The dog could wait.

“Honey!” I called. Though I didn’t need savvy legal advice to immediately call the 800 number on the letter while firing off an email to the newspaper’s human resources department.

“Welcome to the Illinois Department of Employment Security Benefit Payment Control Division,” chirped the voice over the phone. “Your call may be monitored for quality or training purposes ...” It took a few tries to worm my way to where I needed to be.

“Rather than wait on hold or call multiple times, you will receive a call,” the voice lied.

I’m still waiting.

I thought of calling my boss and coyly asking, “Is there something you want to tell me?” But being the editor-in-chief of a newspaper is a crushing, dolorous job, part priest, part janitor, part camp counselor on a rainy day. I didn’t want to add to his woes. I phoned the head of human resources instead.

She said she’s seen a number of these false filings.

“We’ve notified the state that this application is the result of fraud.”

I immediately saw a potential difficulty.

“But not fraud by me, correct?” I said. It seemed an important distinction.

Here it helped to be married to the senior assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois. She suggested I call the police and file a report. The Northbrook officer was friendliness itself — people move to the suburbs for a reason. He said they get 10 or 12 such reports a day, then floated a theory that I instantly recognized as having merit.

“I think it’s just a glitch,” he said. Otherwise, how would the scam work? How would the fraudsters get the money? “As far as we know, nobody is actually collecting benefits.”

This was an enormous relief. Not some bad guy who targeted me specifically and was watching my mailbox with binoculars from the bushes, waiting to snatch my unemployment check. But a vast computer screw-up.

Heck, it was probably the Illinois Department of Employee Security, itself, churning out notices in error. I was greatly comforted by my interaction with the police, which I know is white privilege of such an exquisite variety that I must immediately drop to my knees and acknowledge it here, now.

I phoned the media affairs branch of the same IDES, which will never call me back on my individual case. Nada. Then I tried a scam of my own, boldly informing the governor’s press office that I’m writing about the IDES glitch. It worked.

“There wasn’t a glitch at IDES,” replied Jordan Abudayyeh, press secretary to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, snapping at the bait. “The federal government created a brand new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program that allowed those who are not traditionally employed (think gig workers) the opportunity to access unemployment benefits for the first time. In creating that new system and working to implement it across the country rather quickly they left the system vulnerable to fraud.

“What we’re seeing around the country is that personal information that lives on the dark web due to various data breaches is being used in mass to file for unemployment claims under this system. This isn’t specific to Illinois, this is happening around the country, here are some examples:”

And she included links to stories like ”3.5M Arizona unemployment claims flagged for fraud while real claims fall through cracks.”

The next day I received my own personal IDES Mastercard so I can easily access the funds I am not entitled to. Then two days later, a “Determination” letter that begins, “The evidence shows this claim was filed fraudulently ...”

“But not by me,” I added, mentally. It seemed an important distinction.

At this point I went on vacation — gotta burn up those days. My delay was rewarded. The Chicago Tribune helpfully browbeat IDES for me, or they spilled on their own, last Monday revealing that more than 212,000 fraudulent claims for unemployment have been filed in Illinois since March 1 — 169,506 filed under a federal program for coronavirus relief for self-employed and gig workers.

A glitch.

The story suggested those inaccurately notified of their own unemployment freeze their credit report from the three main credit agencies. Something I found impossible to actually do, despite having gone to college. But I’m going to give it a second try, and that might be a column in itself.

Anyway, I had a good vacation — working away, of course, talking to everyone from a trio of Illinois beekeepers to Broadway star André De Shields. More about that later. I am glad to both still have my job and be back at it. I hope you are, too.

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