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Unemployment fraud targets Niagara County teachers

Posted at 12:28 AM, Jun 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-26 00:37:42-04

NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — After the end of a nontraditional school year, two educators in two different Niagara County school districts learned they were victims of unemployment fraud. Originally thinking this was an isolated incident, these two women quickly learned they were not alone. In fact, between two Niagara County school districts, more than a dozen educators are also victims of unknown scammers that are abusing the state unemployment system.

“It’s surprising, frustrating and disheartening to have to deal with this now,” Angela Jonathan said. She is one of five employees in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District who had their personal information stolen and used to file unemployment benefits.

“It’s scary because you work so hard to protect your personal information, you work hard to build your credit up…then you have to worry about someone stealing your identity,” Jonathan said.

The Tuscarora Indian School employee immediately reported the fraud to the appropriate agencies after receiving an unemployment benefits claim in the mail over the weekend. Even days later, Jonathan said it is unsettling to not know how someone got her personal information.

“I have no idea of what the next steps should be,” Jonathan said. Her story rings true with a fellow educator at Geraldine J. Mann Elementary in Niagara Falls.

“I don’t know what to do. I’ve done everything I can do, but I’m at the hands of other people,” a Niagara Falls City Schools teacher said. The teacher, who is asking not to be identified for safety concerns, reported the fraud to the New York State Department of Labor, FTC and FBI Buffalo the day she received the fraud unemployment claim and a benefits card.

“I can move on, but I’m looking behind me and checking 24/7,” she said.

Niagara Falls City School Superintendent Mark Laurrie said nine district employees have been identified as victims of the scheme.

“I want to make sure that people know this did not come from the Niagara Falls City School District,” Laurrie said. He continued, “We tried to look at this from every angle and every option that we could. We don’t believe it came from our BOCES service. We don’t believe it came from another school district. We are dumbfounded.”

Both situations are likely part of a wider fraud scheme prompting a new warning from the New York State Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement officials.

Last week, 7 Eyewitness News brought you the stories of a Cheektowaga nurse and West Seneca business ownerfacing the same nightmare. All four are frustrated with the lack of communication from the Labor Department and are demanding answers.

“I just wish there was somebody. Somebody out there who could help us,” the teacher from Niagara Falls City Schools said.

Where exactly a data breach came from remains unknown as investigations continue at the State Labor Department level. FBI Buffalo continues to work with state and federal officials.

While the Department of Labor says it cannot comment on specific investigations, it does encourage every New Yorker to be hyper-aware during this time, especially essential employees and employers.

The New York State Department of Labor also tells 7 Eyewitness News the state has identified more than 9,000 fraudulent claims within the unemployment system. The department says it’s cut off the vast majority before payments were made and protected $160 million dollars from being paid out.

The Niagara Wheatfield Central School District released the following statement:
"The Niagara Wheatfield Central School District currently has 5 reported cases of unemployment fraud. We are fortunate to work with a company who manages our claims and therefore alerted those employees impacted by the fraudulent claims. Our employees impacted were instructed to contact the FBI and NYS Department of Labor."

A Williamsville Central School District spokesperson said it is aware of the "the fraudulent unemployment claims" and are providing employees with resources to report the claims to the appropriate agencies.

New York State United Teachers sent the following statement on the scam:
“After working incredibly hard during these stressful times in the past few months, it’s absolutely shameful that scammers would target educators and other hardworking New Yorkers who have admirably handled more than enough stress and anxiety during this pandemic. We are encouraging members affected by this scam to notify their school district and the appropriate authorities with the Department of Labor immediately.”