Multibillion-dollar unemployment scam lands in Olathe

Problem Solvers

OLATHE, Kan. — Mary Jane Cohorst was doing what she usually does, picking up the mail from the box in front of her home. But what she found inside was anything but usual.

There were five letters from the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Inside each envelope was a debit card for collecting unemployment.

Each envelope had been mailed to a person Cohorst had never heard of. Five different names on five different letters all from Arizona’s unemployment office.

To make matters even more confusing, Cohorst had never filed for unemployment in Arizona or anywhere else. She knew these letters were most likely not sent to her by mistake. It stank of fraud.

“That’s when we started to try and find someone to figure out what kind of fraud was going on,” Cohorst said. “We didn’t know how they (the scammers) were planning on getting these cards from us.”

She first called the Arizona Department of Employment Security, but never heard back. That’s when she called FOX4 Problem Solvers.

We tracked down one of the five people who were named in the letters — Paul Skolnik of Arizona. Skolnik said he’d never filed for unemployment and was shocked to learn an unemployment debit card in his name and been sent to someone in Kansas.

Problem Solvers then called the state of Arizona, which wasn’t surprised when we explained what happened.

“Fraudsters worldwide are using phishing scams … to collect information from individuals across the country to file for unemployment benefits,” a spokesman from the Arizona Department of Economic Security wrote us.

He said Arizona has tried to stop the scammers by putting more fraud control measures in place. In fact, he said it was quite likely the cards mailed to Cohorst’s home no longer had money on them.

Nationally syndicated financial expert Terry Savage said the employment scam has hit almost every states’ unemployment office and has been lucrative for fraudsters, many of whom are believed to be overseas.

“The Department of Labor has estimated that this is a $63 billion fraud,” Savage said. “That’s larger than the budget of the Homeland Defense Agency.”

But how does an overseas scammer get money off cards sent to an innocent woman in Olathe?

“The theory is these scam artists… had the cards mailed out from the unemployment office and then quickly changed to direct deposit into an online account,” said Savage.

It’s not a scam going away any time soon, in fact it may be getting worse. Cohorst’s neighbor has also received similar letters. 

Savage said anyone receiving the letters should return them to the state they came from. More importantly, she urged people who receive the letters to put a freeze on their credit. 

She said if scammers have your address, they most likely have a lot of other information about you as well.

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