In the first two years of the pandemic, identity verification company ID.me secured dozens of contracts with the IRS, Social Security Administration, and state unemployment agencies, ostensibly to reduce fraudulent access to government benefits.
As it grew rapidly, so did errors, technical hurdles, and strain on its relatively new staff of customer service representatives, nine former ID.me employees told Insider. Helpline queues for the millions of Americans who relied on unemployment benefits in 2020 and 2021 would sometimes number in the thousands because of these strains, they said.
ID.me’s rush to hire and train nearly 1,500 new workers at this time also led to lax verification practices and poor user privacy protections, these people said. Information like passports and social security numbers were often posted in internal Slack channels, and some employees were hired and given access to confidential data without completed background checks. Some chattered about how easy it would be to steal users’ information. Most of the former employees who spoke with Insider did so under condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions.
Together, these details, many of which have not previously been reported, paint a picture of a company that embraced a massive growth opportunity during the pandemic, but grew too fast to safely handle the avalanche of work it took on.
For millions of Americans, ID.me’s rapid growth added an extra step like facial recognition and app verification to receiving government benefits at a time when they needed it most. Disarray inside the company made this hurdle even harder to pass because there were often too few employees tasked with helping too many customers. Customer service workers said they were often overworked and not given the time or resources to assist people desperately seeking help getting verified.
“It kind of felt like we were thrown to the wolves,” one former employee said.
Patrick Dorton, an outside spokesperson for ID.me, told Insider that the company has 87 million users and 31 state partnerships. He said that “security and privacy is top priority at ID.me,” and that employee wellness is “important” to the company.
For its first 10 years, ID.me was a slow-growing business with fewer than 100 employees, according to company press releases. Founded by Blake Hall, a veteran, the company verified people’s status as a member of the military or nurse to help get them discounts from businesses and restaurants. Aside from a handful of short-term federal contracts for fraud prevention through identity verification, that was it.
Between January 2020 and December 2021, however, ID.me’s user count ballooned to 65 million from 20 million, with 145,000 new people signing up daily. To keep up, the Virginia-based company said it hired extensively and opened a new office in Tampa, Florida.
The vast majority of ID.me’s hires during this time were customer service workers, who fell into one of three roles: document reviewers, email representatives, and video chat agents.
ID.me was hiring so quickly that multiple people described being interviewed and trained by workers who had been on the job for less than three months. Most were recent college graduates who made at or below $20 an hour (except for a temporary pay bump in summer 2021 to $25 an hour, in response to an IRS user influx).
Former employees told Insider that they weren’t given clear guidance on how to help people through somewhat common situations, such as someone dealing with identity theft, or a transgender person with document discrepancies. Dorton said that ID.me “does not consider gender” in identity verification and said that an escalations team “helps identity theft victims or users with document discrepancies.”
Several also described feeling ill-equipped to meet demanding quotas, and overwhelmed by queues that were often thousands of people long.
Document reviewers were expected to rule on a document every 20-30 seconds, video chat agents were expected to verify about 40 people a day, and email representatives were expected to send around 70 emails a day, according to the former employees. Team “leads” would show workers a top-to-bottom ranking of employees based on how many accounts or documents they verified that week, sometimes every day, they said.
Dorton, ID.me’s outside spokesperson, disputed these characterizations, and said that workers take on average 80 seconds to review a document, but are encouraged to ask for help if they can’t make a decision “within 60 seconds.” The performance metrics represented standard industry practice for customer service work, he added.
Three email representatives told Insider that their bosses told them on some occasions to resolve tickets on accounts that they believed were fake, potentially leading to false verifications. They were told it was not their job to catch fake documents, but to resolve email tickets, they said
“We would go to our managers and say, ‘I’ve looked at these documents. I’ve done the training for fake and real documents. This is extremely fake.’ And they told us, ‘That’s not our department, approve it anyway,” one former email representative told Insider. “I just thought that was so counterproductive, that we were just letting the fake documents go by, and some of these people would get approved for their state [unemployment].”
“Email agents do not verify users,” Dorton said. “They have daily productivity and quality targets to support users through the verification process.”
Dorton added that ID.me has “an open door policy” for workers to report getting poor guidance from their bosses. “If we are unsure if a user might be fraudulent, we bias towards access to prevent blocking someone who is legitimate.”
Customer-support employees said they were pressured to prioritize speed, even if issues would require more time to resolve.
“If I wanted to help everyone, there was definitely going to be no way that I would hit the [quota] number, so you do have to make that sacrifice,” Myriam Samake, a former ID.me customer service worker, told Insider.
Breakdowns in this review process could have serious consequences for ID.me’s users, who often need to get verified before accessing crucial services like VA benefits, unemployment payments, and child tax credit money. When these customers complain to agencies like the VA and the IRS, the agencies frequently send them back to ID.me’s customer service, as Insider previously reported.
Several former employees described feeling deeply distressed when trying to help ID.me users who they were powerless to help. Poor or homeless people often lacked a computer, camera-enabled device, or strong internet connection. Some people were living out of their cars and did not have a home address — a required field on ID.me sign-ups.
“There were a lot of people who wrote in and were like, ‘I feel like I’m being given the runaround, how can you be okay with ruining people’s lives like this?’ Because it was blocking their access to unemployment,” one former ID.me employee told Insider. “I would have people emailing in like, ‘I don’t have any food to feed my children. We are about to be evicted.’ And then follow ups that are like, ‘I am now homeless because of this.'”
Dorton said that “speed and accuracy are equally important” for evaluating the performance for customer service workers, meaning there’s “no benefit for not thoroughly helping” people.
Former employees said they sometimes faced threats from people unable to login, or messages on social media from people asking for help getting verified. ID.me offered no official training or guidance on how to deal with these users, they said. Dorton said that employees “have an escalation procedure” to follow if a user is hostile, and that ID.me has separate teams to deal with threats or respond to customers who reach out through social media.
“More than five times, people would be like, ‘I’m gonna kill you if I don’t get my money, I’m gonna attack you. I’m going to show up to the company and do whatever,'” one former employee told Insider.
“I would report them, and then my supervisor told me, ‘Don’t let it get to you, these people are frustrated,'” they said. “I can’t blame them. I was on unemployment before I got to that job, so I know how it feels to not be able to get your money.”
ID.me’s human resources department recommended using a mindfulness app if workers had increased stress or other mental health issues, former employees said. When asked about this by Insider, Dorton said, “Calm is a highly rated, science backed mindfulness application used by over 1500 organizations,”
With a company laptop, email representatives and video chat agents can see any piece of information about any ID.me user — even people they never talk to. They could look up a user’s email, and then find the information, documents, and selfie they submitted to ID.me, these people said. Customer service workers also described a tab on ID.me’s internal dashboard that showed all potential facial recognition matches when a user submitted a selfie for verification. This was to catch possible fraudulent accounts, but these people said the system would often show profiles of clearly different people.
Dorton said, “all activity of employees accessing users accounts is logged and monitored via detailed audit logs.”
One former employee told Insider that training for the job was remote, and everyone was allowed to take company-issued laptops home with them, but after a couple days of training, ID.me told this person they had to complete training in the office because the company hadn’t finished running background checks on the new hires. This shocked them.
“It was disturbing to me that my background check wasn’t completed and that I was allowed to take home a computer with people’s information on it,” the former employee said. “I could have, as I was going through my training, been taking pictures of people’s things. Nobody was watching me.”
Dorton said that ID.me was “unaware of the incident you reference,” and said that new hires have to complete background checks before they’re trained.
Document reviewers were told to upload dubious verification documents to a “peer review” Slack channel. These documents, which sometimes included real personal information like passports or social security cards, were visible to anyone across the company who could access the channel, several former employees said. The files were deleted after a ruling was made, one former employee said, but Slack may keep files, even deleted files, permanently. Compromises to ID.me’s Slack could also reveal all of these documents to hackers, regardless of ID.me’s proprietary security protections.
Dorton said that ID.me “shut down the Slack channel and provided training and reminders on handling Personally Identifiable Information,” but did not say when either of those things happened.
In November 2021, ID.me ended remote work for customer service employees. The company cited “security reasons” in the email announcing the return-to-office plans, three people said. Dorton said the return-to-office mandate was because of the “availability of FDA approved vaccines,” rather than any specific event.
When workers returned to the office, supervisors would pace behind them for the duration of their shifts, several people said. They’d glance in their backpacks and make sure they didn’t have their phone or a notebook on their laps. Dorton told Insider that workers are allowed to use their phones in the break rooms, and that employees are given two 15-minute breaks per day.
“It just felt a little hostile in my opinion,” one former employee told Insider. “And I had never had another job before. So I thought this was totally normal.”
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