The aggressive actions have helped some of these states identify tens of thousands of suspicious claims filed by alleged criminals, many of whom had relied on personal information stolen from unsuspecting workers to obtain benefits they were not eligible to receive.
But these states’ aggressive interventions have also swept up many people who have nothing to do with the scams. Some out-of-work Americans who had properly filed for help — and weathered long delays to obtain checks in the first place — have been baffled and frustrated to find their benefits are now unexpectedly paused.
“They said benefits would only be stopped for few days, but it’s been weeks,” lamented John Tirpak, executive director of the Unemployment Law Project. His nonprofit advocates for workers in Washington, one of the states hit hardest by fraud.
For Karen Womack, her first unemployment check arrived in April, and not a moment too soon. The 49-year-old Tukwila, Wash., resident had bills to pay, a family to support and bigger dreams to chase — a plan to move her husband, son and granddaughter out of the one-bedroom unit in an extended-stay hotel where they had been living for years.
In May, though, an ominous notice arrived from the state, asking Womack to verify her identity. She did as she was told, submitting her identification and Social Security cards to Washington officials. But the state’s unemployment office has cut off her jobless aid anyway, leaving her with no cash — and no answers — for the past four weeks.
“I understand they’re going through a fraud situation,” said Womack, who worked for 20 years at T-Mobile Park, the home of the Seattle Mariners baseball team, recently serving in a supervisory role before the novel coronavirus took hold. “But that doesn’t pay my bills.”
Washington officials estimate that fraudsters may have stolen up to $650 million from their unemployment insurance system. The state has been able to recapture about half of those dollars, said Suzi LeVine, the commissioner for Washington’s Employment Security Department, but she still acknowledged the hardship their anti-fraud efforts have inadvertently created for some local families.
“We know that people are hurting, and we’re doing everything we can to quickly resolve these identity cases and make sure legitimate claimants get their benefits,” she said.
The troubles surfacing in Washington state and around the country illustrate the unavoidable consequences of a pandemic that abruptly shuttered businesses and threw tens of millions of Americans out of work. Never before have so many people flooded their local labor agencies seeking financial help at the same time. And never before have states faced such pressure to dispatch their aid so quickly.
Another 1.5 million people applied for unemployment last week, bringing the 12-week total during the coronavirus pandemic to 44 million, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Earlier in the pandemic, a flood of cash-starved applicants overwhelmed states’ creaky computer systems and jammed their phone lines. Years of neglect — and technology in some cases that was nearly half a century old — resulted in some Americans waiting months just to collect their first unemployment payments.
Adding to the burdens, the $2 trillion Cares Act adopted by Congress introduced a host of new programs that states had to rush to implement in the face of crushing demand. Their tasks included the launch of a new safety-net program covering workers for Uber, Lyft and other gig-economy companies, as well as a new mandate to send an extra $600 in aid payments to all Americans until the end of July.
“The problem is every state is overwhelmed,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates unemployment insurance programs. Amid the influx of claims, she said “funding has actually decreased” for state unemployment offices over the past 20 years.
States had started clearing some of their backlogs when the first signs of fraud emerged in May. A bulletin circulated by the U.S. Secret Service indicated Washington and six other states had fallen victim to a “large-scale” criminal operation believed to have originated in Nigeria. The scammers often seized on stolen information — allegedly derived from past public data breaches — to impersonate government personnel, first responders and school employees, and collect unearned benefits in their names, U.S. officials said.
The Secret Service initially indicated Florida, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Oklahoma and Wyoming had been targeted in the scheme, but its May 14 bulletin concluded with a wider warning: “It is extremely likely every state is vulnerable to this scheme and will be targeted if they have not already.” The Secret Service did not respond to requests for comment.
States soon rushed to adopt a wave of measures meant to scrutinize new unemployment insurance claims more closely and vet those they already paid, hoping to cut off the fraud before it could metastasize. Many states required their residents to submit new documentation to prove their identities, at times pausing benefits until they completed the process.
Maine, for example, put in place a 48- to 72-hour delay last week on paying out benefits to take a closer look at its applications. In doing so, state officials said they have canceled more than 12,000 new claims, and over 16,000 weekly certifications to obtain checks, believing them to be fraudulent, according to data released June 4.
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, local leaders in late May said they would be following up with a wide array of workers who obtained money under the Cares Act after the state “discovered attempts by scammers to try and bilk COVID-19 unemployment benefits.” The state had not been among the initial hot spots flagged in the Secret Service’s alert last month.
In total, the state has halted 58,000 claims for review, the “majority” of which “have been verified as authentic,” said Penny Ickes, the communications director for the state’s Department of Labor & Industry. “We are still working with state and federal partners to investigate the remaining claims.”
The wide-ranging, still-evolving scams have troubled federal officials, who predicted in recent months that fraud targeting unemployment insurance could total $26 billion nationwide. Scott Dahl, the inspector general for the Labor Department, delivered his own sobering assessment in written remarks filed ahead of a congressional hearing Tuesday. The watchdog’s office alone is actively probing 400 matters related to jobless benefits, he said, adding they “expect that number to rise.”
But some states’ crackdowns still have troubled labor advocates, who point to the fact that out-of-work Americans already had to navigate a complex, bureaucratic and lengthy process just to get checks in the first place — and now face the prospect of significant delays once again.
“It’s affected people who are already getting aid, and affected people whose claims still haven’t been processed yet,” said Rachael Kohl, the director of the University of Michigan Workers’ Rights Clinic.
Michigan officials recently said they had stopped payments on 340,000 active claims, totaling 20 percent of all unemployment claims filed in the state, pending further review. Jeff Donofrio, the director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, said at a news conference that some of the claims may have been filed fraudulently using personal information stolen from past security breaches targeting organizations such as Equifax. The 2017 security lapse at the credit-reporting bureau affected more than 140 million Americans, whose names, addresses and Social Security numbers were exposed.
Still, Donofrio acknowledged some innocent Michiganders may face delays and other hurdles as a result of the state’s investigation. “Unfortunately, many of these are legitimate claimants whose economic lifeline is now tied up due to this criminal scheme,” he said at the public event.
The state declined further comment.
In Washington, officials last month began reviewing 190,000 claims for suspicious activity, said LeVine, the director of the state’s unemployment agency. They have resolved more than half of their investigations, she said, and so far clawed back more than $300 million in erroneous payments.
But unsuspecting, innocent Washington residents — many out of work since the pandemic first took hold in March — say they have been caught in the fray, too.
In Renton, a suburb of Seattle, Lucia Flugencio already had been struggling to receive her first unemployment check. Her war over paperwork began in March, after she was laid off from her job overseeing some retail stores and restaurants at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Then, last month, Flugencio received a request to substantiate her identification. The note led the 28-year-old to believe she had been swept up in Washington’s anti-fraud review. She submitted the documentation, yet weeks later, said she hasn’t heard a word.
Washington officials stress they have taken great pains to minimize the disruption to legitimate applicants. They must tend to an array of victims that includes unsuspecting state residents who may not even realize their personal information is in the hands of hackers and fraudsters who sought to obtain benefits on their behalf.
But the state itself further added to the headaches when it for a time sought to collect sensitive data by email, a security risk in its own right. LeVine said the state is now directing people to submit documentation through a secure portal.
For Flugencio, though, the continued delays and lingering silence from the state has only added to her anxieties, as she struggles to maintain her finances and care for four children as a single mother while living with her own mom and aunt.
“I’m not the only one out there feeling like that,” she said, adding the people who need help most are “getting screwed.”