Fraud concerns remain as unemployment benefit claims grow

By Rachel La Corte | The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — More than 1.1 million people in Washington have filed for unemployment benefits since businesses started closing in March due to COVID-19, but state officials said Thursday that they believe some portion of an increase in claims seen in the past week are due to fraudulent claims.

More than 1.6 million claims for unemployment benefits — with some of that number reflecting people who filed multiple claims — were filed for the week of May 10-16, and more than $1 billion was paid last week to 565,764 individual claims. To date, the state has paid out nearly $3.8 billion in benefits, including federal money that is providing the unemployed with an additional $600 per week on top of the state’s weekly maximum benefit of up to $790 per week.

Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that more than 768,000 people who have filed an initial claim have been paid. LeVine announced last week that because of an increase in attempted “impostor fraud” applications for weekly benefits, they were putting a hold on all payments for up to two days last week while they took additional steps to verify claims.

LeVine said previously that there have been no data breaches at the agency, and that recent fraud attempts are cases where someone’s personal information has been previously stolen from other sources — like during the 2017 Equifax breach — and is now being used to file for benefits. The agency has said that more than $1 million in fraudulent claims has been paid out between March and April.

“We are working closely with federal law enforcement to stop fraudulent activity, to investigate these crimes and get as much of the stolen money as we can returned to us,” she said.

Washington’s stay-at-home order — in place since March 23 — has been extended through at least May 31. The state’s unemployment rate has jumped to a record 15.4 percent last month and the state’s economy lost 527,000 jobs last month.

Gov. Jay Inslee has already eased some restrictions across the state, allowing the resumption of existing construction, fishing and golf, and the reopening of most state parks, as well as curbside pickup for retail sales.

Inslee also announced a four-stage reopening plan earlier this month, and has allowed counties with fewer new cases to apply to jump ahead to the second stage, which allows some businesses to reopen, including dine-in restaurants at half capacity. Ten counties have already been approved, and Inslee announced Tuesday that 10 more counties are now eligible to apply.

Over the past two months, nearly 39 million people nationwide have filed for unemployment aid due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus.

More than 18,900 people in Washington state have tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 1,037 have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

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