What’s happening

Reports of identity related crimes rose to a record level in 2021, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Why it matters

The pandemic continued to fuel an increase in the theft of unemployment benefits last year. Meanwhile, other criminals are looking to take over social media accounts for their own gain.

Reports of identity related thefts and scams jumped to record levels last year, as the COVID pandemic continued to boost criminal attempts to steal the unemployment and other government benefits of deserving consumers, the Identity Theft Resource Center said Wednesday.

The ITRC, a nonprofit that helps victims of identity theft, said it was contacted nearly 15,000 times in 2021 by regular people looking for help. That represents a 26% jump from 2020’s total, as well as the biggest total since the center was founded in 1999.

“With high water marks for identity fraud, compromises, and misuse, it’s important to take protective measures like freezing your credit, using strong 12 plus character unique passphrases on all of your accounts and ignoring suspicious messages,” Eva Velasquez, ITRC’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

Just over 4,000 of last year’s victims were scammed into handing over their identity information, which could then be used to open new financial accounts. About 40 percent of those people reported that their financial accounts were misused, while more than half said their information was used to open, access, take over or apply for government benefits. 

Cybercriminals started targeting unemployment and other government benefits back in 2020 after the pandemic prompted many people to file first-time unemployment claims and the federal government boosted the amount they could collect.

The ITRC also reported a spike in Google Voice scams, noting that they were involved in more than half of the 7,000 identity theft scams it recorded last year. 

In those scams, cybercriminals often pose as interested buyers on online marketplaces. They’ll say they want to buy what the victim is selling, but want verification of their identity. So, they’ll send the victim a text message with a Google Voice verification code, then ask for it.

If the victim hands over the code, the scammer can then use it to create a Google Voice number in the victim’s name, which can then be used in future scams. In addition, if scammers get the victim to hand over other personal information in addition to the code, they could use it to steal the victim’s identity and access other or open new accounts in their name.

To avoid getting swindled by these scammers, the ITRC says, consumers looking to sell online should do business only in person with verified funds, avoid rushing into a sale and never hand over a Google verification code.

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