Washington state rocked by coronavirus benefit fraud in 'the hundreds of millions'

Impostors have used the stolen information of tens of thousands of people in Washington state to fraudulently receive hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits, the head of the state's Employment Security Department said late Thursday.

Official won't confirm if fraud is from Nigeria, says info may have been stolen from credit agencies

Washington state Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine, standing next to Gov. Jay Inslee, gave more details Thursday of a COVID-19 benefits fraud scandal. (Rachel La Corte/The Associated Press)

Impostors have used the stolen information of tens of thousands of people in Washington state 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 counter-measures 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.

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 ring seeking to commit large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs.

LeVine said she couldn't speak to the details of the investigation. She said that the Secret Service alert wasn't directly shared with her but that the Employment Security Department received it through other sources.

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LeVine said agency officials realized something was amiss even before that alert, once they started receiving communication from employers or employees who got information about unemployment benefits 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. 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.

Nearly $4B in unemployment benefits handed out overall

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.

"These are very sophisticated criminals who have pretty robust collections of information on people, and they are activating and monetizing that information," she said.

To date, the state has paid out nearly $3.8 billion in benefits to more than 768,000 people, including federal money that is providing the unemployed with an additional $600 per week on top of the state's maximum benefit of up to $790 per week.

Levine noted that Washington's state's weekly maximum benefit — the second highest in the nation — plus the additional federal weekly money "does make us a more attractive target overall."

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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 per cent last month and the state's economy lost 527,000 jobs last month. LeVine said that a jump in new unemployment benefit claims last week — long after most business closures occurred — point to additional fraud attempts across various industries.

"It is a broad spectrum of employers in both the public and the private sector who have had this impacting their employees," LeVine said.

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

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