NBC 5 Responds' hotline has been lit up with calls about unemployment benefits fraud since very close to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
As with any crisis, criminals seemed to pounce, finding fodder with the tragic loss of jobs for millions of Americans.
Now agencies that say they have been working together behind the scenes are making it official, though some say it's long overdue.
The special agent in charge of Chicago's FBI field office joined NBC 5 Responds for a virtual interview to talk about the effort and characterize the scope of the massive problem.
"Well, this unemployment scam is across the country, you know, so that's the magnitude. That is a nationwide problem. Illinois is no different. “ Emmerson Buie Jr. said. “It's a major problem. When you have instances like this, you never know who's involved or the depth of it. You know, in some instances you may have people on the inside."
The FBI enters this fray working with multiple federal and state agencies like the IRS and Illinois Attorney General’s Office to crack down on the booming fraud.
It's a development that victims told NBC 5 they have been waiting for after getting little or no response from Illinois’ Department of Employment Security.
Brenda Schmidt of Naperville said her dad got the unemployment benefits card from the Illinois Department of Security this summer, five years after his death.
"My mom and I worry that somehow his identity is being stolen,” Schmidt said.
Many victims told NBC 5 Responds their names were used to apply for benefits, even as they remained fully employed. The equation also hit the desk of employers, who said their efforts to help protect employees by reporting fraud to IDES also fell on deaf ears.
"I’ve had to deal with other states … and Illinois is by far the worst," Lombard business owner Joan Fuller said.
Last summer, Fuller said she called IDES "more than 100 times" to no avail in order to report fraudulent activity filed in the name of her gainfully employed staffer.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul showed NBC 5 Responds the debit card taken out in his name back in July.
As for the critics who call this move overdue, Buie said the feds and states have been working together, behind the scenes, for months.
"The FBI has been looking at this since the spring. Since COVID began; it's just that we did not publicize it," he said. "You know a lot of times I explained it like this: We don't want it to be an open book test with a criminal. So you don't want to tell the criminals who all is looking at it, who all is involved, because then they change what they do and it makes it harder for you to identify them and catch them.”
And therein lies the goal. The FBI is also getting this out there as consumers start to think about tax season. Those whose identities may be tied up in this fraud are going to have extra work in explaining any fraudulent benefits in their name to that other federal agency, the IRS.