SOMERVILLE, MASS. (WHDH) - When the pandemic hit, so did an international crime ring! Criminals swiped people’s identities and filled fake unemployment claims across the country. But Hank Phillippi Ryan found some of their targets were government employees right here in Massachusetts.

When the COVID pandemic first hit, Michael, a Worcester public school teacher started teaching remotely.

But then he learned a lesson when he got this surprising letter from the Massachusetts state unemployment office.

“And I was pretty upset by it,” Michael said.

The letter says Michael is eligible for more than $15,000 in unemployment benefits.

So, of course, I got nervous about that,” Michael said. “Am I going to be getting a pink slip in the mail saying I don’t have a job anymore?

But Michael wasn’t being fired, he was the victim of fraud!   Someone else had stolen his identity and successfully filed for unemployment.

“I didn’t think that these things are going to happen to me. But it did,” Michael said.

And our investigation found city employees, like Michael, are now targets of an international crime ring that’s fraudulently applying for unemployment.

In Worcester: Officials told us at least 40 other city workers there may be victims, including the school superintendent.

Somerville got hit too!  We have learned 26 working city employees got shocking letters saying they’d applied for unemployment — even the mayor!

No one in the unemployment office said, wait a minute, that guy’s the mayor of Somerville?”  Hank asked.

I was like, well, you know, it’s just this is ridiculous. It must be a mistake. And then you sit back and think about it. Wait a second. This is a planned scheme. It’s alarming that we’re talking about serious amounts of taxpayer and public resources that are at risk of being stolen,” Joe Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville said.

How could this happen?

A Secret Service memo we obtained says a “well organized Nigerian fraud ring” is using personal information “from first responders, government personnel, and school employees,” “to commit large scale fraud.”

“It’s tremendously scary,”  Steve Weisman, a fraud expert said.

Weisman says criminals have even gotten fraudulent claim money deposited directly into out of state bank accounts.

We’ve got a perfect storm in the sense that the security is not as good as it should be because government officials want to get the money out as fast as they can,” Weisman said.

Massachusetts unemployment officials say so far, they’ve identified more than 58,000 fraudulent claims– and stopped payment of more than $158 million dollars.

Michael warns, if you get a letter like he did, take it seriously.

I worry about other people that may not be aware of this,” Michael said.

Officials are now cracking down on identity theft. If you got a letter saying you applied or are eligible to receive unemployment benefits, but you never signed up, report that to the Division of Unemployment Assistance immediately.

Click here for information on how to do that and take other steps you should take to report identity theft.

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