Virus Outbreak Massachusetts

Sensitive information, including Social Security numbers belonging to a number of City Hall and Pittsfield Public Schools employees, was obtained by scammers, who used the information to fraudulently seek unemployment benefits, said city Finance Director Matt Kerwood.

PITTSFIELD — The state has been dealing with an “unprecedented amount” of fraudulent unemployment claims, and city officials said Tuesday that municipal and school employees were caught in scammers’ crosshairs.

Sensitive information, including Social Security numbers belonging to a number of City Hall and Pittsfield Public Schools employees, were obtained by scammers, who used the information to fraudulently seek unemployment benefits, said Finance Director Matt Kerwood.

“I was one of them,” Kerwood said, describing how someone fraudulently filed an unemployment claim in his name.

Kerwood told The Eagle that a process led by Director of Human Resources Michael Taylor to separate the fraudulent claims from valid ones has been “painstaking” and lasted several months. Taylor told city councilors Tuesday that most of the employees affected by the fraudulent claims were school staffers, but he did not disclose the number of impacted employees.

The state first started identifying fraudulent unemployment claims in March, Kerwood said. In a Nov. 30 communication to Mayor Linda Tyer, Taylor said a deluge of fraudulent unemployment claims led to a billing delay.

“This caused a severe delay in billing employers for the benefit charges as they needed to sort through what was fraudulent and what were legitimate claims,” Taylor wrote. “Many of our employees have been affected by these fraudulent claims.”

Because of the volume of fraud, the state was delayed in billing employers like the city of Pittsfield for their unemployment obligations, he added. The city in late August received invoices for unemployment obligations dating to April and May.

“It was then our responsibility to audit those charges for fraudulent claims and protest those charges with the agency,” he wrote.

City officials have worked their way through the process of separating valid claims from phony ones, and were ready to settle their bill, Taylor told the City Council on Tuesday. Councilors went on to approve a $69,619 expenditure to cover the benefits.

In May, Massachusetts officials announced that “criminal enterprises in possession of stolen personal information from earlier national data breaches” were using the information to file fraudulent unemployment claims.

Kerwood and fellow city employees who were impacted are in good company: The state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said Dec. 1 that 171,805 fraudulent claims had been identified as of Nov. 23. The state said it recovered $242,220,594 in payments identified as fraudulent.

Several Massachusetts residents have been criminally charged for allegedly participating in a fraudulent unemployment scheme.

The state asks that anyone who believes that someone applied for unemployment benefits using their personal information notify officials through its secure fraud reporting form or call the Department of Unemployment Assistance customer service department at 877-626-6800.

Also on Tuesday, councilors had not yet voted by press time on a petition filed by Councilor Anthony Maffuccio challenging the city’s policy of evicting homeless individuals from Springside Park.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.

Cops and Courts Reporter

Amanda Burke is Cops and Courts Reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.