Pandemic Unemployment Benefits Fraud may Top $45 billion, Federal Watchdog Says

Some $45.6 billion in pandemic unemployment benefits may have been fraudulently paid to criminals between March 2020 and April 2022, the US Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General said in a memorandum on Thursday.

Fraud within the nation’s unemployment system skyrocketed after Congress enacted a historic expansion of the program to help Americans deal with the economic upheaval sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020. State unemployment agencies were overwhelmed with record numbers of claims and relaxed some requirements in an effort to get the money out the door quickly to those who had lost their jobs. Within five months, more than 57 million people filed claims for unemployment benefits, the inspector general’s office said.

“Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds attracted fraudsters seeking to exploit the UI program — resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments,” Inspector General Larry Turner said in a statement.

Nearly a million Social Security numbers were used by people who filed for benefits in two or more states, resulting in benefits paid from more than one state, the inspector general’s office said. They received nearly $29 billion in potentially fraudulent payments. And 1.7 million Social Security numbers associated with suspicious email addresses were used to file for $16.2 billion in benefits.

The inspector general’s office said that it has had difficulty getting unemployment insurance data from state workforce agencies until subpoenas were issued. In some cases, the data sent was incomplete or unusable.

The inspector general’s office also took issue with the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, which oversees the unemployment insurance program, saying the agency has not implemented the office’s previous recommendations including to collaborate with state agencies to establish effective controls to mitigate fraud and to work with Congress to require state agencies to cross-match high-risk areas.

“ETA’s lack of sufficient action significantly increases the risk of even more UI payments to ineligible claimants,” the inspector general’s office wrote in the memorandum.

The inspector general’s office also announced Thursday that more than 1,000 people have been charged with crimes involving unemployment benefits fraud since March 2020, and there have been more than 400 convictions to date. It has opened more than 190,000 investigations into unemployment benefits fraud, an increase of more than 1,000 times in the volume of the office’s unemployment insurance work.