Among the challenges that COVID-19 has brought, add a higher risk of identity theft to the mix. In the past year, the FTC had about 1.4 million reports of identity theft, double the number from 2019. Repeatedly, identity thieves targeted government funds earmarked to help individuals and small businesses hard hit financially by the pandemic.
In 2020, the biggest surge in identity theft reports to the FTC related to the dramatic and nationwide dip in employment. After the government expanded unemployment benefits to people left jobless by the pandemic, cybercriminals filed unemployment claims using the personal information of other people. In 2020, the FTC received 394,280 reports about government benefits fraud — overwhelmingly about identity theft involving unemployment insurance benefits — compared with 12,900 reports in 2019.
People also reported identity theft in which criminals used their business or personal information to get money from government-sponsored loan programs designed to help small businesses weather the pandemic. People reported they learned about the fraud when they got notices telling them it was time to repay loans they never applied for. Last year, we received 99,650 reports of fraud involving business or personal loans, compared with 43,920 reports in 2019, before the pandemic began. While not all of these new reports can be attributed to the government relief effort, they are a sizeable share of the increase.
Americans also reported identity theft involving their federal stimulus payments from the IRS by reporting it as tax identity theft. In 2020, reports to the FTC of tax identity theft rose to 89,390, from 27,450 reports in 2019. While many of the reports concerned other types of tax identity theft, the report numbers began to swell when distribution of the stimulus payments began.