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The massive unemployment insurance (UI) fraud that occurred during the pandemic was caused by a failure to invest in public infrastructure (broadly defined). Three types of public infrastructure were not adequate to accurately perform and police the distribution of enhanced unemployment benefits that were put in place due to the high job losses of the pandemic.
- States’ unemployment computer systems that pay out UI benefits are, in general, antiquated.
- Law enforcement capacity to detect and punish UI fraud is inadequate.
- Government regulation and oversight of Internet platforms, as well as detection and punishment of Internet-based criminals, has lagged far behind their explosive growth and sophistication.
The convergence of these three failures to invest in public infrastructure allowed as much as $400 billion in fraudulent UI claims to be paid – a staggering loss for taxpayers. This is perhaps the largest wave of fraud in U.S. history. Fraudulent claims for UI benefits occurred through:
- The use of stolen identities,
- The use of false identities, and
- The filing of multiple claims for the same identity, usually in multiple states.
Warnings of weaknesses in states’ UI systems, which often use aging or obsolete technology, have been on-going since a 1998 federal Labor Department’s Inspector General’s report about the proliferation of UI fraud. In 2002, a subsequent report highlighted the use of stolen or fake identities to apply for UI benefits and the repetitious use of an identity across multiple states. A 2015 report, detailed systemic weaknesses that made states’ systems vulnerable to fraud. Both the Obama and Trump administrations proposed efforts to boost information sharing among states and with the federal government to reduce fraud, but Congress failed to enact their proposals.  Despite over 20 years of warnings, needed investments in this public infrastructure haven’t been made.
State funding for UI administration has fallen in recent years, in part because unemployment was low. At the start of 2020, as the pandemic hit, states’ funding for UI administration was at a 30-year low and states had cut funding to detect fraud. Federal regulations require states to cross-check UI benefit applicants against other state and federal databases to determine eligibility and to detect fraud. However, many of the states’ systems do not have the technological capability to do those cross-checks efficiently and electronically. Furthermore, the surge of UI claims during the pandemic overwhelmed the capacity of state systems from both a technological and a human resources perspective. As a result, 20 states did not perform all of the required cross-checks and 44 states did not perform all the recommended ones.
Budget cuts have also occurred at the federal level. Between 2012 and 2020, the number of criminal investigators at the Labor Department declined by 28%.
It is projected that from March 2020 to September 2021 (when enhanced federal UI benefits expire) roughly $1 trillion in UI benefits will have been paid out – which is done through state UI systems using state and federal funds. A very conservative estimate is that $100 billion of this will represent fraudulent payments and some experts think the number could be as high as $400 billion.
Multiple Internet platforms host forums and ads explicitly offering tips and techniques, often for a price, for obtaining UI benefits fraudulently. For example, the messaging app Telegram, hosted dozens of chat forums, some of which had thousands of participants, that provided state-specific instructions on how to file fake UI claims and how to avoid fraud detection efforts. These guides provided lengthy step-by-step instructions, with screenshots, on how to enter information. One Telegram user, with the handle “VerifiedFraud,” provided regular updates to his 1,300 chat room participants on how to file state-specific claims and avoid fraud detection as states enhanced their anti-fraud efforts.
In addition, these Internet sites also regularly offer stolen identities for sale. Ads would offer an identity for sale for $70 along with $200 for detailed instructions on how to use the information to defraud a specific state’s UI system. (Incidentally, the chats also reflected serious concerns about fraud by the sites, e.g., that the instructions purchased might not work.)
This UI fraud represents part of an explosion of Internet-based crime that has occurred over the past 25 years. Much of this criminal activity is based on the use of stolen or fraudulent identities, which are often used to file claims for public benefits. From 2010 to 2019, over 2,000 large-scale data breaches of business and government sites have occurred that have accessed 6.9 billion records with personal identities. In 2020, nearly 400,000 complaints of identity theft were reported, up from 13,000 in 2019. Law enforcement needs to be beefed up, both in capacity and sophistication, to reduce identity theft and Internet-based crime.
The scale of the UI fraud is truly mind-boggling. During the pandemic, the number of UI claims far exceeded the number of jobs lost. From March to December of 2020, the number of UI benefit claims was over 110 million while 38 million workers were out of a job or underemployed at the peak of the pandemic. (A small piece of this discrepancy is explained by the fact that if a person lost more than one job during this period, they could legitimately claim UI more than once.) In five states, the number of UI claims was larger than the entire civilian workforce. Maryland reported detecting 508,000 fraudulent UI claims in the six weeks from the beginning of May through mid-June of 2021. In Vermont, 90% of claims in some months were determined to be fraudulent. In Rhode Island, 43% of claims in March were suspected cases of fraud. California confirmed that 10% of its UI payments were fraudulent and it is investigating another 17%. In Washington State, auditors have identified 250,000 potentially fraudulent claims costing $1.1 billion.
The most fraud-prone piece of UI benefits was the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which funded 39 weeks of benefits for workers typically outside of UI systems such as self-employed individuals, “temporary” contractors, and gig workers. Congress did not require the normal verification of prior income and employment for the PUA program, so it was ripe for fraud. Pennsylvania estimated that 84% of its PUA claims were fraudulent and California found that 95% of its confirmed cases of fraud were PUA claims.
The Biden Administration is taking steps to reduce fraud in UI claims. The Labor Department’s Inspector General’s office is getting increased access to states’ UI payment date so they can more quickly and efficiently look for fraud. The $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill passed in March contains $2 billion to help states modernize their UI systems. There have been some prosecutions of individuals who are repeat offenders, often not just of UI fraud but also of tax and other fraud. Furthermore, a company called ID.me, which verifies claimants by having them submit pictures to match to those in identifying documents, has been hired by 27 states since mid-2020 and the Biden Administration is providing $1 billion to expand its services to other states. The experience with ID.me has highlighted the degree of fraud. In New York, new claims under the PUA program fell by 89% after ID.me was implemented in late March. Data from five states indicated that 50% of UI claimants did not respond when asked by ID.me to submit a picture to confirm their identity.
So, investments in this public infrastructure are being made – better late than never – to improve fraud detection and reduction in state UI systems and to enhance law enforcement. However, the regulation and oversight of Internet-based entities seems to be largely unaddressed. Although some platforms and sites have been shamed into taking some steps and shutting down some users by unfavorable publicity, this is not a long-term or efficient solution. The federal government needs to enhance its regulation and oversight of Internet-based entities whose explosive growth and sophistication resulted in massive fraud in the UI system during the pandemic.
 Podkul, C., 7/26/21, “How unemployment insurance fraud exploded during the pandemic,” ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org/article/how-unemployment-insurance-fraud-exploded-during-the-pandemic) This blog post is primarily a summary of this article.