A new bombshell interview with one of countless international scammers getting rich off American relief efforts makes it painfully clear just how carelessly the US government is throwing money around in the name of COVID-19 relief.
In a Zoom session with the camera turned off, Mayowa describes how he scoops up US unemployment benefits fattened by COVID-19 relief, an international imposter attack that has contributed to at least $36 billion being siphoned away from out-of-work Americans.
Mayowa is an engineering student in Nigeria who estimates he’s made about $50,000 since the pandemic began. After compiling a list of real people, he turns to databases of hacked information that charge $2 in cryptocurrency to link that name to a date of birth and Social Security number.
In most states that information is all it takes to file for unemployment. Even when state applications require additional verification, a little more money spent on sites such as FamilyTreeNow and TruthFinder provides answers – your mother’s maiden name, where you were born, your high school mascot. Mayowa said he is successful about one in six times he files a claim.
“Once we have that information, it’s over,” Mayowa said. “It’s easy money.”
Mayowa agreed to take USA TODAY inside the fraud in an interview arranged by security firm Agari, using only his first name to hide his identity. The security company gives him another source of cash: It pays him in Bitcoin to provide information about active scams.
Coronavirus-era unemployment fraud was first identified in the state of Washington in May and since has spread to all 50 states, skipping to new targets as government agencies plug holes exposed by the massive scams. Mayowa and his crew of foreign scammers focused in November on Hawaii, Florida and Pennsylvania.
In addition to the crushing volume of legitimate claims during COVID-19 and public pressure to speed up payments, mobile banking apps and prepaid debit cards issued by some state unemployment offices paved the way for fraud this year, security experts said.
The step-by-step playbook the scammers follow is shared on Telegram, an app that provides cloud-based anonymous messaging and acts as an internet bulletin board of tips and questions.
Asked whether he feels bad about stealing from unemployed Americans, Mayowa pointed out that 70% of his peers in school are working the scams as side hustles, too.
“No, no remorse,” Mayowa said. “We don’t know them. We don’t know who they are; it’s nobody.”
US states for years had prepared for low-level fraud, focusing on whether actual state residents filing for unemployment were telling the truth. The recent wave of imposter fraud – including from overseas – caught them off guard.
Within two weeks of CARES Act funding enriching weekly benefits, $600 million had been bled from the state system – roughly 8% of the $8.6 billion paid over the summer. The state pulled the plug on all payments for two days while it struggled to figure out what was happening.
Eventually, the state’s computers started to flag anomalies: out-of-state banks, duplicate email addresses and multiple names using the same bank accounts. But there and elsewhere, antiquated state computer systems failed to flag foreign IP addresses, repeated computer serial numbers and techniques to mask that number.
Mayowa said all he had to do was make …