Kansas had the highest reported rate of identity theft attempts in the U.S. last year — more than three times the national average.
Last year, 43,211 Kansans alerted the Federal Trade Commission that someone had stolen or attempted to steal their identity. That’s up from 2,272 cases reported in 2019.
Identity theft swelled nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic, but Kansas’ 1,802% year-over-year increase is the highest of any state, according to a new report based on data from the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network. The next-highest state, Rhode Island, saw an increase of 1,002%.
Eighty-eight percent of Kansas’ 2020 identity theft reports were classified as government documents or benefits fraud. The Kansas Department of Labor has faced a barrage of fraudulent unemployment claims since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Attempted unemployment fraud is not the same thing as paid out fraudulent claims,” Kansas Deputy Secretary of Labor Peter Brady said. “We have analytics and systems in place to try and stop any fraudulent attempts before a single dollar goes out the door.”
A March study by Javelin Strategy & Research found that American consumers lost roughly $56 billion to identity fraud in 2020. These scams cost victims an average of $1,100, Javelin found.
The KDOL strongly encourages identity theft victims to report attempted fraud to the FTC, even if they don’t lose any money in the scam.
“On the one hand, I fully believe that the incidence of identity theft is increasing. But I also have to hope, I want to believe that people are reporting it more,” said Elizabeth Kiss, associate professor and extension specialist in Kansas State University’s Department of Personal Financial Planning.
In late January, KDOL partnered with LexisNexis to implement two-factor authentication software and an identity-proofing tool for unemployment insurance accounts and claims.
“These upgrades will identify and stop the flood of fraudulent claims Kansas and states across the country have been fighting against, so the team at the Department of Labor will have more time to help unemployed Kansans,” Gov. Laura Kelly said at the time.
On Feb 8, just six days after the new software went live, KDOL announced that it had already blocked more than one million fraudulent login attempts and bot attacks.
Kansas’ rate of identity theft through the first quarter of 2021 was 1,239 attempts per 100,000 residents — second only to Rhode Island. That rate has ticked down from Kansas’ 2020 high of 1,483 attempts per 100,000 residents.
“The challenge here is that even if we stopped the fraudulent unemployment claim well before it ever got to our system, and even the state of Kansas probably, that individual’s identity was likely compromised at some point in the past,” Brady said.
Over the past few years, bad actors have filled the dark web with personal information compiled in large commercial data breaches, he said. Now, that information is being used to defraud government programs, including the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which provides relief for self-employed workers and independent contractors who weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits before COVID-19 hit.
How to protect yourself
Some of the most common identity theft schemes include phishing emails and robocalls asking for personal information.
“Certainly, we’re all putting more personal information out into the world, whether we want to or not, or whether we’re aware of it or not,” said Kiss, the K-State professor.
The FTC encourages people to be skeptical when organizations that sound official reach out via informal channels to ask for personal information such as a Social Security number.
“Some organizations need your Social Security number to identify you. Those organizations include the IRS, your bank, and your employer. Organizations like these that do need your Social Security number won’t call, email, or text you to ask for it,” the FTC website states.
A number of fraudsters have attempted to impersonate the Department of Labor. Brady said the KDOL will never ask Kansans to validate their purchase history or provide their credit history information over text message or email.
“Everybody, especially in this time, really has to remain vigilant. Remain cautious,” Brady said. “I don’t know if suspicious is the right word, but you know, always be thinking and concerned for your own personal information.”
Other FTC tips for protecting personal information include using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication for accounts that offer it. Financial records, Social Security and Medicare cards, and other documents with personal information should be stored in a safe place and ultimately shredded.
If you become a victim of identity theft, alert the companies/organizations where you know the fraud occurred; place a free, one-year fraud alert on your account by contacting one of the three credit bureaus; and report the theft to the FTC, which will help you set up a recovery plan.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, are offering free weekly credit reports.