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Pa. says it’s investigating ‘aggressive and sophisticated’ unemployment fraud efforts

BY: JOHN L. MICEK – JANUARY 8, 2022 7:31 AM, PENNSYLVANIA CAPITAL-STAR

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry says it’s investigating “increasingly aggressive and sophisticated” efforts to steal unemployment compensation benefits. And the agency is urging employers and workers to report any suspicious activity.

Fraudsters, both foreign and domestic, have been “exploiting unprecedented demand on the nation’s unemployment compensation systems,” since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier said in a statement, adding that the state takes its “its responsibility to safeguard taxpayer dollars and individuals’ personal data,” seriously, and will “aggressively and transparently” work to root out fraud.

Fraudsters initially targeted the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, the federal program that provided extended benefits to people who lost their jobs during the early days of the pandemic, and who were not typically eligible for unemployment benefits. The impacted workers included independent contractors and gig workers. In most instances, fraudsters used stolen identities to try to access benefits.

In its statement, the Labor & Industry Department said fraudsters increasingly have targeted traditional unemployment benefits. In its statement, the department said it’s using fraud-detection methods, including multi-factor identification for benefit applicants, to safeguard against fraud attempts. The agency estimated that it’s prevented “more than $4.7 billion in state and federal dollars” in fraudulent payments since a new benefits system went online in June.

State governments nationwide spent much of the pandemic fighting off cyber-criminals looking to exploit weaknesses during the frantic rush for aid as businesses shuttered and millions of people were thrown out of work. State officials and cyber-security companies scrambled to close the breach.

“If there’s ever been a year to reprioritize and make sure your cybersecurity is taken care of, this is it,” Forrest Senti, a vice president at the National Cybersecurity Center, a nonprofit think tank based in Colorado Springs, Colo., told Stateline.org in February 2021. “These attacks are precursors to what could happen if we’re not investing properly and doing training and listening to those who know how to deal with this. We don’t want cyber 9/11.”

Last November, federal prosecutors in Virginia secured the conviction of four more people in a broad unemployment fraud scheme that resulted in the theft of nearly $500,000 in benefits, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement at the time. And last week, a Chester County woman was sentenced to more than a year in prison for her role in an unemployment fraud scheme, the Justice Department said.

In its statement, the Labor & Industry Department urged Pennsylvanians to “remain vigilant about guarding their personal and confidential information and to monitor for signs that their information is being used fraudulently.

According to the Department, signs of fraud include:

  • “Individuals receiving unrequested unemployment paperwork from L&I’s Office of Unemployment Compensation.
  • “Individuals receiving unemployment benefit payments they did not apply for from the Pennsylvania Treasury,” and
  • “Employers receiving notice that a claim has been opened for a current employee who is actively working, or an unknown person.”

People can report suspected fraud by visiting the UC Benefits Website  or by calling 1-800-692-7469.

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