OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Impostors have used the stolen information of tens of thousands of people in Washington to fraudulently receive hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits, the head of the state’s Employment Security Department said Thursday.
Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the state is working with federal law enforcement, financial institutions and the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the fraud and try to recover the money paid out during the huge spike in joblessness during the coronavirus crisis.
LeVine said she can’t release specific numbers or details of the ongoing investigation. But she said that countermeasures taken by the state have “prevented hundreds of millions of additional dollars from going out to criminals and have prevented thousands of fraudulent claims being filed.”
LeVine said that in addition to other measures the agency has already taken, they will continue to delay payments — a step they first took last week — to all applicants in order to take extra steps to verify claims. Previously, applicants set up for direct deposit receive their money within 24 to 48 hours. Now, they will need to wait an additional two days.
The New York Times and Seattle Times have previously reported that a U.S. Secret Service alert issued last week identified Washington as the top target so far of a Nigerian fraud ring seeking to commit large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs. LeVine said she couldn’t speak to the details of the investigation, but said that the Secret Service alert wasn’t directly shared with her, and that the agency received it through other sources.
But LeVine said agency officials realized something was amiss before that alert, once they started receiving communication from employers or employees who received information about unemployment benefits that the employee didn’t seek.
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 they believe some portion of an increase in claims seen in the past week are due to so-called “impostor fraud” claims.
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