Fraudsters stole more than $45 billion in unlawful unemployment claims during the pandemic, the Labor Department concluded on Thursday – while warning that the actual figure may be even higher.
Criminals used inventive measures to access the COVID benefits, with more than 205,000 Social Security numbers that belonged to dead people being used to claim the cash.
Some schemes saw the Social Security numbers of prisoners being used, despite them being ineligible for the unemployment benefits.
The latest figure is more than double the earlier estimate, issued by the Labor Department last year, when they concluded that $16 billion had been stolen.
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat representing Oregon who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the new report proved the urgency of improving security checks on unemployment benefits.
‘I’ve long said we need a national set of technology and security standards for state systems to better prevent this kind of fraud, and we’re going to keep working to get our reforms passed,’ he said.
A woman walks past a shuttered shop in Manhattan on June 2, 2020, in the midst of the pandemic
Long lines of people wait for COVID testing in the Bronx on April 19, 2020
The Labor Department inspector general said 190,000 investigations have been opened into fraud since the pandemic began.
Separately, the Justice Department on Thursday said that 1,000 people have now been charged with COVID-related fraud.
Those charged include a 61-year-old Massachusetts woman, who filed 25 unemployment claims for people who were not even living in the state.
Audri Ford-Victory, from Springfield, swindled $215,246 from the system, with the money going to people who were not eligible.
‘Ford-Victory received kickback payments in exchange for submitting the fraudulent claims,’ prosecutors in Boston said.
She pleaded guilty in January this year to one count of wire fraud conspiracy, and was sentenced to six months of house arrest and three years of probation.
Audri Ford-Victory, 61, from Springfield (center, with green vest), swindled $215,246 from the system, with the money going to people who were not eligible
A New York man who stole $131,560 was sentenced to six years and 10 months behind bars in July.
Hector J. Sanchez, a 30-year-old member of the Bloods gang from Rensselaer, who has 11 prior convictions including three felonies, also swindled a $12,500 loan for a non-existent car wash business.
In court papers, federal prosecutors said that on November 21, 2020, Sanchez posted a video on social media featuring his hands sorting through large amounts of money with the text stating: ‘IF YOU HAVEN’T FILE FOR UNEMPLOYMENT, GET WITH ME N COME GET THIS BAG.’
Between September 2020 and November 2020, Sanchez applied for pandemic unemployment benefits under nine different identities.
A Texas woman, Donna Wasson, 37, of San Antonio, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in March this year.
She pleaded guilty in November, and was ordered to pay restitution and forfeiture in the amount of $5,437.
In January 2021, she wrote on Facebook: ‘Too stressed to see right. These mobile banks can jus take ur money and tell u that now u have to wait 6months to get what u worked so hard for. FML! If I did that to jail id go.’
One man replied: ‘Sounds like you are going to jail!!’
Donna Wasson, 37, of San Antonio, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in March this year
Larry Turner, the inspector general for the Labor Department, issued his report on Thursday
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors charged 47 defendants, who were accused of stealing $250 million from a government aid program that was supposed to feed children in need during the pandemic.
A Minnesota non-profit organization, Feeding Our Future, was accused of orchestrating the plot.
Its founder, Aimee Bock, denied wrongdoing.
Larry Turner, the inspector general for the Labor Department, said in a statement that the huge sums of money being poured into the economy during the pandemic, to support out-of-work Americans, overwhelmed the system and created opportunities for fraud.
‘Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds attracted fraudsters seeking to exploit the UI program — resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments,’ he said.