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Arizona seeing increase in fraudulent COVID-19 unemployment claims

PHOENIX — As the COVID-19 global health emergency grips the nation, crooks have found a new way to steal money.

Over the past few months the Arizona Department of Economic Security has seen a sharp increase in the number of individuals fraudulently filing unemployment insurance claims using stolen personal information.

“These fraudsters are using phishing scams, data breaches and other tactics to collect information of individuals across the country and using that information to file for UI (unemployment insurance) benefits in several states. From February 2020 to date, there have been 251 confirmed cases of UI fraud related to identity theft in Arizona, according to available data,” Brett Bezio, DES spokesman, wrote in an email to PinalCentral Monday.

Filing false unemployment insurance claims is a serious felony.

“The DES Office of the Inspector General, alongside the Integrity Unit of the Unemployment Insurance program, are continuously vetting methods and tools for detecting and preventing identity theft within the Arizona UI program. Ensuring the integrity of our programs and safeguarding the personal information of our clients are priorities for our Department. We appreciate our claimants’ patience while we continue to protect the integrity of our programs and ensure individuals receive the benefits to which they are entitled,” Bezio wrote in his email.

Pauline James of Casa Grande, who is self-employed, said she received an “electronic payment card” from Arizona DES that is a Bank of America debit card.

“It said to activate it and when I called to activate the card it said there was $5,150 on it,” James said.

Instead of activating the card, James said she has been reaching out to DES and the Social Security Administration and cannot get a hold of anyone to talk to about the fraud.

“They just say if I want them to call me back, they will. They say they’re just very busy. I can’t get a call back,” she said.

Employees of Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc., PinalCentral’s parent company, have also been victims of this new unemployment scam.

Annette Lee, human resources director for the company, said she received claims for two company employees who are still working through the pandemic.

“We go through a third-party vendor. The state gives them the claim information and the third-party administrator gives us the information. We have to provide last day worked, what happened and whether they quit or resigned. The notices came across on two employees and their socials were correct. The names were correct. They also both had March 8 as their last day worked,” Lee said.

Both employees were identified as being laid off on March 8 while the claim wasn’t filed until early June.

“They both are also currently still working full time,” Lee said.

The reason for the March layoff date and the early June filing delay is simple — unemployment benefits are retroactive, leaving a large pool of money available to the scammer if they can get their hands on it.

Lee said she was very surprised by the unemployment claims as both are longtime employees of the company and she knew they had not left their employment.

“Usually, I know the people who have left. This is the first time it’s ever happened where that person was still working,” Lee said.

Mark Urseth, production director at Casa Grande Valley Newspapers, was one of the employees whose name was used in the scam and he said, “I got my card and everything. I haven’t checked to see if there’s any money in there.”

Urseth said the Bank of America debit card came to his address along with a lot of other paperwork from DES. All of the paperwork contained his correct contact information, including address and Social Security number.

“I have never filed an unemployment claim in my whole life,” Urseth said. “What else are they using my Social Security stuff for? They apparently have that, and they knew where I work.”

When reporting fraud to DES, individuals should provide identifying information in the web form that will help locate the claim. This includes Social Security number, full name (as it appears on the documents received from the UI program) and mailing address where the documents were received.

Individuals who suspect UI fraud can submit a report to DES at https://des.az.gov/services/employment/unemployment-individual/unemployment-insurance-fraud-convictions.

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Video: RV park blaze was in unprotected fire area

CASA GRANDE — A fire demolished two recreational vehicles and two automobiles Tuesday afternoon in Sierra Vista RV Park west of Casa Grande.

The fire could have been a whole lot worse.

Steven Kerber, founder and chief of Regional Fire & Rescue Department, said the park is not in a protected fire district.

Regional Fire was called at 5:12 p.m. after everyone else refused to fight it, according to Kerber.

“It is not in our response area,” he said. “We had to make a judgment call, and we had to call manpower into the station to help cover the station. We were a little delayed in getting out the door by four minutes or so, until we confirmed that someone was on the way. That’s what we have to do when responding to an out-of-the-area fire call.”

RV trailers destroyed by fire

It took Regional Fire trucks and personnel 15 to 18 minutes to arrive at the RV park. It took about 20 minutes for the 3,500-gallon tanker to arrive at the distant scene.

“The initial RV was pretty much burned to the ground and a second RV was fully engulfed, along with two passenger vehicles between the RVs,” Kerber said.

People living in the park had begun spraying water on the burning vehicles with garden hoses along with wetting down other RVs in the park. Kerber said their actions stopped the fire from spreading.

A vacant RV space next to the engulfed RVs also helped keep the fire in check, he said.

“The threat was pretty much isolated once the second RV caught fire,” he said.

Regional Fire was able to have the fire under control within 20 minutes of arrival and spent two more hours at the scene mopping up.

Kerber said a couple was renting the RV where the fire began in space No. 2. The male renter came home and smelled something equivalent to burning popcorn, woke up his sleeping girlfriend and they got out of the RV.

Kerber said smoke was seen coming up a sidewall of the RV as the couple evacuated.

“There was nothing but evacuation and a call to the manager that led to a call to 911. Sierra Vista RV Park is in unincorporated Pinal County with no established fire protection. The (Pinal County) Sheriff’s Office had called all other agencies, and everybody refused. We were the last phone call,” Kerber said.

“Embers get into the air and before you know it, the whole park could have burned down. Too many people are oblivious and think they’re going to call 911 and get somebody to respond. They don’t even think to find out who their fire protection is. Are they a subscription-funded fire department? Do I need to subscribe? Am I going to get a bill? They seem highly appreciative when you’re there. When you tell them that they are getting a bill, you are their worst enemy,” Kerber said.

Both RVs and the other two vehicles were a total loss. No one was injured in the fire.

New stay-at-home workers may be fueling CG housing boom

CASA GRANDE — The number of permits pulled for the construction of new homes in Casa Grande continues to grow and is even starting to match or even exceed the number of new home permits issued in the city of Maricopa.

Last year, the city of Casa Grande issued a record 549 permits for new single-family homes. In 2018, the city had a total of 254 permits pulled for new single-family homes. So far this year, the city has had a total of 317 permits issued for new homes and is still on track to exceed the number of permits that were issued last year, despite the arrival of COVID-19.

The number of new homes being built is a good thing, according to Debbie Yost, a real estate broker and owner of Yost Realty Group at Re/Max Casa Grande.

“We need more housing availability in Casa Grande,” Yost stated in an email. “New construction didn’t keep up with normal population increases over the past ten years.”

At the same time, new companies like Lucid Motors and the expansion of existing companies are attracting more people to the area, she said. And the COVID-19 pandemic has even created a demand, with more people looking to move to the suburbs and away from many metro areas.

“As employees shifted to working virtually, they realized they could live in areas with less population, more outdoor living opportunities and lower-priced housing,” Yost said. “Our location in central Arizona offers an ideal place to live: amazing climate most of the year, close to two metro areas, the intersection of two interstates and within a day’s drive of so many climates, recreation and opportunities. It’s an ideal place to live and this will only continue.”

Casa Grande isn’t the only area experiencing a tight housing market. The number of available houses on the market is low across the country and the state, Yost said.

New housing stock will not help today’s home prices because the current demand to purchase homes in Casa Grande is so great, she said. However, because so many of the houses that are being built are being designed for first-time or entry-level home owners, the new construction could have an effect on rent prices. Rental rates have been increasing over the past few years, Yost said.

“Many of the families who have been renting are shifting to new construction purchases. With interest rates so low, it’s often less expensive to purchase a home than to continue to rent,” she said.

There’s a number of reasons why a home buyer may look at purchasing a new home over an existing home, Yost said. New homes usually need fewer repairs, the appliances and heating and cooling and other systems are brand new and still under warranty. They may just like being the first family to live in the home or it may be the only option open to them on the market.

New homes are also attractive to investors who like them because all of the appliances and systems in the home are new and may not need a lot of maintenance for a few years, she said.

However, new homes also have a few drawbacks, Yost said. They often don’t come with extra features such as window coverings, ceiling fans, landscaping or pools that an existing home might have.

SE Construction from Gilbert is one developer that is looking to build new homes in the Casa Grande area. The company has purchased property near the Interstate 10/Interstate 8 interchange and plans to build energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and technologically advanced homes, stated SE Construction owner Elizabeth Adams.

“Arizona as a whole and Pinal County specifically are experiencing growth at a rate higher than the national average. The inventory of available homes is at an all-time low. Homes are selling quickly,” Adams said.

Part of that demand is being driven by all of the economic development that is happening in Pinal County and Casa Grande, she said.

“In addition to Lucid Motors, there is a great deal of growth happening in Pinal County,” Adams said. “Jackob Andersen (president and CEO of Saint Holdings) and others have positioned Pinal County to be the next manufacturing hub. In addition to Lucid, Nikola, a shopping center at the I-10/I-8 interchange, the gas plant, new manufacturing training at CAC and all the supporting businesses are already slated to open doors. There are other companies that are eyeing Casa Grande and the surrounding areas to bring their businesses to as well.”

SE Construction homes include energy-efficient insulation, construction materials and windows, solar power, plumbing that allows septic water to be used for irrigation, tankless water heaters, LED lighting and smart home technology. The company plans to initially offer five 2,200-square-foot homes on 1.5-acre lots.

Adams said the company believes that the solar-powered, energy-efficient homes will complement the alternative energy work that Nikola and Lucid are doing and be a great draw to people who are looking for homes with such features.

“The demand for these types of homes continues to increase. There are communities popping up nationwide that are solar powered. Building environmentally friendly and technologically advanced homes is quickly becoming the norm across the country as consumers desire independence and a simpler, more comfortable way of life,” Adams said.

Police break up protest outside Trump rally in Phoenix

PHOENIX — Police broke up a protest Tuesday outside a church where President Donald Trump was nearing the end of a speech to supporters.

Authorities said they declared the protest of several hundred people to be an unlawful assembly when two demonstrators swung at two officers in separate incidents, and others threw objects. No arrests were made.

Two groups of protesters had merged into one and demonstrated peacefully for hours as police, most in plainclothes, stood watch.

Tension grew as officers in riot gear arrived to stand between demonstrators and the path of Trump’s motorcade. Phoenix Police Sgt. Ann Justus said some protesters had moved outside a designated “free speech zone” and into an area protected for the motorcade.

Video from a protester, Jared Forster, showed a line of people chanting and yelling at a line of police in riot gear as an officer on a loudspeaker told people to step back. The video shows one demonstrator pushing on an officer’s shield with his arm and the officer grabbing him around the neck in response.

Authorities used flash bangs, pepper balls and “a burst of pepper spray,” Justus said.

One of the protesters, Bethne Stewart of Phoenix, said she was hit with mace or some other eye irritant.

“We’ve been peaceful all day,” Stewart said. “We’ve been loud, of course, that’s our right. But the police have been dogging us, harassing us.”

Most demonstrators promptly left, and organizers using bullhorns urged others to do so as well. They cleaned up their trash as they dispersed.

Inside Trump’s event, Arizona elected officials were among the few spectators observing Phoenix’s order for people to cover their faces while in public. Gov. Doug Ducey, who last week gave mayors the authority to impose mask mandates amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, wore a mask with an Arizona flag. Sen. Martha McSally and Reps. Paul Gosar and Debbie Lesko also wore masks.

About 3,000 people were crowded inside the Dream City Church to hear the president speak at a “Students for Trump” event.

Fans began lining up hours before they were allowed inside, most flouting the city’s order to wear masks in public to stop the spread of COVID-19. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego had said the policy would not be enforced, noting the city was focused on educating people not ticketing them.

Some said they felt the threat of the virus was overblown or that they were healthy enough to survive it.

“It’s not anything to really concern myself about,” said Bryon McComb, who was decked out in Trump gear and said he’s seen the president speak several times in Phoenix and Houston.

Inside, seats filled up shortly before Trump arrived, but late-arriving supporters were surprised to find they could get inside. Unlike many Trump events before the pandemic struck, there was not a large crowd gathered outside.

Pam Neff, 64, of Phoenix brought a mask and accepted a face shield that someone handed her. She was a little concerned about the virus but felt it was important to show her support for Trump, she said.

“I just wanted to stand for him, and I think my presence is doing that,” Neff said.

Under blazing heat that reached 107 degrees in the afternoon, several hundred Trump critics gathered outside, shouting and waving signs. A group chanting “Black Lives Matter” marched down busy Cave Creek Road, escorted by police in plain clothes, and met up with others protesting in front of the entrance to the church property.

Chris Hanlon, a 49-year-old Arizona State University professor, said he was doubtful Trump would listen to the protesters’ message, but he was hopeful others would hear it.

“I hope that demonstrations like this convince decent, moral Americans who care about one another that they’re not alone, and in fact they’re in the majority,” Hanlon said.

Hanlon, who wore a mask, said he was taking a risk by joining a crowded protest, but “this is not a frivolous reason to take that risk.” He believes the protest is less risky than Trump’s indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last weekend because demonstrators in Phoenix were outdoors and mostly masked.

Trump arrived in Phoenix following a stop in San Luis, outside Yuma, to look at the U.S.-Mexico border wall that he’s championed.

Arizona, in particular, is seeing disturbing trends in several virus benchmarks, including the percentage of tests that prove positive for the virus. The state’s positive test rate is at a seven-day average of 20.4%, well above the national average of 8.4%. When the positive test rate rises, it means that an outbreak is worsening — not just that more people are getting tested.

Ducey lifted his stay-home order in May but said social distancing should be maintained. He carefully avoided criticizing people who violated the recommendations and declined to order people to wear masks. But seeing worrying trends, he reversed his position last week and allowed cities and counties to impose their own mask mandates. Most, including Phoenix and Yuma — and the counties where they are located — have issued such orders.

Still, Ducey said he would not intervene to discourage Trump’s rally.

“These are voluntary events and people will voluntarily make the decision,” Ducey said at a news conference last week. “We’re going to protect people’s rights to assemble in an election year.”