Eileen Barnacoat and her husband Chris of West Townsend, Mass., got a bit of a jolt in May when they received a letter stating that a claim for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, was filed in Chris’ name with the state Labor Department's Unemployment Assistance Division.

“He opened up the letter and said, 'What is this?', because he had not made any claim,” Eileen Barnacoat said.

The Barnacoats are retired and live on a pension. They knew something was off.

A similar thing happened to John Biagi, a plumber from Milford, MA. A claim letter seeking PUA went to Biagi's employer, who flagged it as fraudulent.

“He had received notice with my name, social security number, all of that, and that I was filing for unemployment,” Biagi said. “But the whole time, I was working for my employer, so it was something that I did not do.”

Biagi said his employer let the Labor Department’s unemployment division know that he had not filed the claim. As recommended by the state, Biagi reported the fraud and took action to safeguard his identity, accounts and credit history.

According to the Massachusetts Unemployment Assistance office, 58,000 fraudulent claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance have been filed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The department said it has recovered $158 million.

Boston FBI Special Agent Michael Livingood, of the Economic Crimes Task Force, said so-called bad actors are filing false claims for pandemic unemployment assistance and the Paycheck Protection Program. Livingood said PUA fraud often occurs after someone visits a website and posts personal information, which leaves a digital trail or footprint online.

“Typically, what we see in these types of scams is that there is people's personal information for sale online,” Livingood said.

Somone collecting that information, Livingood said, can then "file for fraudulent unemployment as somebody, or you might be able to open a company and file a fraudulent PPP loan.”

Livingood said that in 2019, more than $3.5 billion was reported in fraud nationwide. That is more than double than in 2017, when $1.5 billion was reported.

PUA fraud cases are up in Needham, where Police Lieutenant Chris Baker said they are seeing a sudden spike in reports.

“We received a lot [of claims] early on, then it kind of slowed down. And I would say over the last two or three weeks, we've gotten as many as 10 a day,” Baker said.

Baker said in order to verify that you are who you say you are, police and other law enforcement agencies start a file and a full fraud investigation.

“It kind of creates like a trail, an evidence trail … such as, I filed a police report. This is my proof that I can send that to my credit agency,” he said.

Livingood said when personal information or a social security number is stolen to create a fraudulent PUA claim, it is a tedious process to pinpoint the source. But he said there are safeguards to protect people from becoming victims. He recommends the Federal Trade Commission's website IdentityTheft.gov.

“That is a really good resource. And it will guide folks through,” Livingood said.

As a result of the increase in fraud since the start of the pandemic, the state unemployment division has added stricter security identification measures, including asking for additional personal information from claimants.

Eileen Barnacoat and her husband said they figured out the source of their identify breach, and luckily did not lose any financial assets. But she is still angry about the fraud attempt.

"Here we were at the height of a pandemic," she said, "and people were out of work and desperately needing money and that, you know, somebody is trying to rob it and rob them, rob all of us."