SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — At least $11 billion in unemployment benefits so far have gone to criminals instead of to the millions of Californians who desperately need them during COVID-related hardship.

Turns out it’s not that hard to steal money from California’s Employment Development Department. There are a number of different so-called “playbooks,” and instructions for them are all spelled out on the dark web.

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One very popular type of scam is known as imposter fraud.

That’s what happened in the case of Gustave Hendricks. He works full time as a security guard in Bakersfield. So when he got a notice on his phone from unemployment he knew something wasn’t right.

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Sure enough, someone had collected more than $1,400 in his name.

“They had changed my address and they also had changed my telephone number,” said Hendricks.

KPIX referred his case to Blake Hall, CEO of ID.me, a private information security company that California’s Employment Development Department now contracts with to crack down on benefits fraud.

“My estimate is that nationwide about 40% of the claims that have been filed are fraudulent,” said Hall.

Hall notes that crime rings operating out of Russia, Nigeria and Hong Kong are behind many of the attacks. But they have created an open source playbook on how to commit the fraud — called a “sauce” — allowing smaller time fraudsters all over to join in.

“So now the cancer has really metastasized, because there’s all these other cooks who aren’t capable of sourcing the recipe themselves; but they can follow it,” said Hall.

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He says it starts with buying something called a “fullz” on the dark web, essentially a bundle of personal data.

“They will buy a fullz and then they’ll take the sauce, which is the guide for how you defraud a government agency. And that’s how they perpetrate these attacks,” said Hall.

Once a fraudulent application for unemployment is approved, people called money mules step in.

“To extract the funds and get them out internationally back to Nigeria or to Russia or to wherever it’s going, they need to recruit somebody who’s on the ground in California or in Florida or Pennsylvania,” said Hall.

Hall says the mules pick up the EDD cards at a selected address, often a vacant home, cash them at an ATM then send the money back to the crime rings through an untraceable cash app or GreenDot.com account.

“Then the criminals give that person a cut of the money. And that’s why they’ll do it repetitively,” said Hall.

Id.me is now screening suspect applicants through video chats. Blake says they’ve seen all kinds of disguises, some easier to spot than others. He referred Hendricks’ case to law enforcement.

Meanwhile, KPIX visited the house on Lacey Avenue in Oakland that was fraudulently listed as Hendricks’ address. The house is a rental and the property owner told us they know nothing about it. However, the owner said the home was vacant five years ago for about a year.

As for Hendricks, he said he just wants to clear his name.

“I just want to get it squared away, you know?” he said. He has filed reports with the police and with EDD. He is a Navy vet and is scheduled for knee surgery in April. He worries the fraud might complicate things when he applies for disability.

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“My concern is that it may be held up. I don’t know much about what they need to do or what they should have done, but I know something needs to be done,” said Hendricks.