AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new phishing operation is targeting out-of-work Texans already struggling and in need of help.

“[Operations] like this, of course, are trying to take advantage of Texans and we want to make sure that they aren’t,” said Texas Workforce Commission spokesperson Angela Woellner. “Because a lot of these people are vulnerable and they’re really looking for resources and they need that help.”

Since June, Texans have received fraudulent text messages saying their unemployment benefits are available. In recent days, fake emails from “TX Unemployment” have been sent alerting users to a purported “new document” that’s been uploaded to their account.

None of it is true.

Image of fraudulent email (Courtesy Texas Workforce Commission)

“We are not going to be contacting people that way,” Woellner said. “So, we want them to be very cognizant, aware, and vigilant for these type of [operations], which are trying to steal their personal information.”

The TWC says it only provides and collects information from claimants through its TWC Unemployment Benefits Services (UBS) portal, fraud portal, Tele-Serv (automated phone system) or Tele-Centers. The agency says people should never click on a link provided in an email or text.

This new phishing operation is designed to bait people into unwittingly handing criminals sensitive personal or financial information, which can be used to steal their money and identity.

It’s unclear how many Texans received the phony texts and emails. Woellner said her agency has received “multiple” complaints. At least eight imposter websites, posing as TWC, were identified and shut down, she said.

There is no evidence of a breach of TWC systems, or that this was anything other than a blanket phishing attempt, Woellner said.

“With us, or really any organization, is that if you see something that looks even slightly suspicious, go find the actual source,” Woellner said. “And then look up either the phone number, look up the email, and make sure who you’re contacting to see if that really is who you’re trying to get a hold of, or who should be trying to get a hold of you.”

A similar text message operation in Washington state asked individuals to select a link to apply for a new Department of Labor COVID-19 “Supplement Bonus,” Woellner said. There are currently no reports of Texans being targeted by this specific fraud attempt.

Fighting payment fraud

The TWC says it is taking “all necessary steps” to eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse “while protecting Texans from having fraudulent claims paid using their stolen identities.”

Fraud detection improvements reduced the amount paid to imposters from $529 million in the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 – August 2021) to $530,000 (September 2021 – June 2022). In 0.1% of cases, identity thieves received payment before being caught, Woellner said.

During the current fiscal year, around one in 10 claimants filing for unemployment were attempts by imposters that were blocked before receiving benefits. From March 2020 – August 2021, it was one out of six.

From March 2020 through June of this year, TWC blocked 890,000 bogus claims from receiving unemployment benefits preventing a loss of an estimated $4.77 billion, Woellner said, urging Texans to be vigilant for criminals attempting to steal your data and identity.

TWC encourages anyone to report suspected fraud or identity theft. Victims will not be held liable for any benefits paid out using their stolen information.