Identity Fraud Spikes During Pandemic

Identity Fraud Spikes During Pandemic
Brian Sevald
COVID-19 has contributed to a rise in cases of identity theft as scammers seek to cash in on unemployment benefits and other programs meant to alleviate the economic effects of the pandemic.  Dallas police Detective Ryan McCarrick said that since the pandemic broke out, five to six identity fraud cases hit the desks of the department’s financial investigation unit a day. “I can’t think of any other type of identity theft in my time here that we’ve seen five or six reports of in a single day,” McCarrick said.

Usually, the victim’s identity has been stolen to apply for unemployment benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission or other disaster loans that are only available because of the pandemic.  Identity theft to obtain credit is generally more prevalent, he said, but even during tax season, one of the busiest for this type of theft, he said they don’t get as many reports as they have recently.

One Dallas-area man is accused of participating in a scheme to file fraudulent loan applications amounting to about $24.8 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

It doesn’t take a whole lot to register a business to get one of these loans, and the fees required are a small price to pay for fraudsters.

But Dallasites are also getting tricked into other cons like employment, romance, real estate and “box of rocks” scams. (The latter involves selling packaged electronics or other items at a discount. Victims instead end up with broken goods or wind up buying a literal box of rocks. While the financial investigations unit doesn’t track scams and swindles by type, McCarrick said these are the most common, in his experience. About 12% of the cases the unit handles are thefts, he said, and swindles, aka theft by deception, make up a portion of these thefts.

“To be totally honest with you, we don’t end up prosecuting many of these swindles because modern technology has made it to where you can do it online from anywhere in the world, really, and remain pretty anonymous,” McCarrick said.

In many cases, while the detectives in the unit can’t put their thumb on exactly where a suspect is, there’s enough evidence to determine they’re somewhere outside of the country.

“In fact, for the most part, if the suspect is outside the city of Dallas our investigation sort of ends there,” he said. “If we are able to determine the jurisdiction where they are, we would get in touch with that local jurisdiction to refer the case to them.”

If it’s clear that the money is going overseas, that’s a pretty good indication that the suspect is overseas as well, he said.

Sometimes the suspect’s location just can’t be determined. McCarrick said this is because many scams these days are being conducted using cryptocurrency designed to be difficult to trace.

McCarrick said the Federal Trade Commission has good information to help stay up to date on the ever-changing nature of these scams, but he also has two pieces of advice that can keep people from becoming victims.

First, don't rush into things. Scammers like to make the stakes high and give the impression that a decision has to be made immediately. They’ll say if you hang up, they’ll issue a warrant for your arrest, for example. His second bit of advice is an old truism that still holds weight: If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn