EFFINGHAM — Andes Health Mart Pharmacy owner Chip Andes has been employed since college. So, when he received a letter stating his unemployment application had been accepted, he was stunned.

“I wasn’t sure what penalties I would be in,” he said.

Further confusing Andes was that the claim was filed under his nickname, Chip, rather than his given name, Garrett. Andes, who isn’t sure how his identification was obtained, received help from the Effingham County Case Manager program at the Effingham Public Library in reporting the fraudulent claim.

Since getting the claim letter about a month ago, Andes is still waiting to receive something from the state of Illinois notifying him the fraudulent claim has been resolved.

“It would be nice to know it’s totally completed,” he said.

Andes isn’t alone. The number of residents seeking help with fraudulent jobless claims through the Case Manager program has skyrocketed over the past few weeks, according to Effingham County Case Manager Joanna Davies.

“And it doesn’t seem to be letting up,” she said.

Since the end of October, the two case managers including Davies have helped 60 people with fraudulent unemployment claims made in their names as the local Illinois Department of Employment Security office remains closed to the public.

“If you phone the IDES 1-800 number to report fraud, it can take two to four weeks for a response. We are very lucky and grateful to have a contact within our local IDES office who can immediately put a stop to the fraudulent claim while we help the person contact the IDES fraud department, as well as offer other steps to help protect the person’s identity,” said Davies.

While the local IDES can immediately stop the claim from paying out, the investigation into it continues, she explained.

Case managers have been helping residents file for unemployment since June. They also assist people in applying for state benefits such as food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid and find a stimulus check, food pantry or organizations that can assist with rent, utilities and other necessities.

Davies said the fraudulent claims affect all demographics.

“It seems to be hitting everyone – working people, retired people. We even helped with a fraudulent claim filed in the name of a deceased person,” she said. “Factory workers, teachers, medical workers, everyone is getting hit.”

Case managers have also seen a large number of local business owners who’ve had fraudulent claims filed in their names.

“We’ve seen many area businesses get hit with multiple fraudulent claims,” said Davies.

To help mitigate future fraudulent claims, the case managers give those applying for unemployment a handout of ways for the person to protect his or her identity, since a Social Security number and driver’s license or state ID number are needed to file a claim.

Experts say fraudsters typically file claims using personal data leaked from past data breaches. In fraud cases that involve identity theft, some victims discover they are a victim when they receive a letter from the department saying a claim has been filed in their name, or their employer receives a letter.

The letters include debit cards, which the state sends out to people once they file for benefits. Those cards are not preloaded with funds, but the state sends them in case people want to have their benefits loaded onto the card rather than deposited into their bank accounts, said IDES spokeswoman Rebecca Cisco.

Scammers are able to obtain the funds by directing the state to send benefits to their own accounts, rather than to the debit cards.

More than 212,000 fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits have been filed since March 1, according to IDES. Acting IDES director, Kristin Richards, said the agency “is experiencing fraud in an order of magnitude we’ve never seen before.”

Richards said department staff are trying to determine how many fraudulent claims have been paid out. Illinois had provided more than $17.7 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 1.3 million people from March 1 through the end of October, IDES said.

Anyone who has been a victim of fraud is not liable for any unemployment benefits paid in their name, Richards said.

Davies said requests for assistance in filing for unemployment have remained steady, if not slightly increased, since the Tier 3 statewide mitigations took effect. The restrictions include a ban on indoor dining in bars and restaurants.

“We’ve got people needing to file new claims, reopen claims, as well as seasonal workers who typically apply for unemployment at this time of year but have hit glitches in the IDES website and struggle to file their claims,” she said.

The Effingham County Case Manager is available Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Effingham Public Library, 200 N. Third, Suite 2. To contact the Effingham County Case Manager, email effcocasemanager@gmail.com or call 224-209-6638.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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