A federal watchdog on Thursday found that fraudsters may have stolen $45.6 billion from the nation’s unemployment insurance program during the pandemic, using the Social Security numbers of dead people and other tactics to deceive and bilk the U.S. government.
The new estimate is a dramatic increase from the roughly $16 billion in potential fraud identified a year ago, and it illustrates the immense task still ahead of Washington as it seeks to pinpoint the losses, recover the funds and hold criminals accountable for stealing from a vast array of federal relief programs.
The report, issued by the inspector general for the Labor Department, paints a grim portrait of the country’s jobless aid program beginning under the Trump administration in 2020. The weekly benefits helped more than 57 million families just in the first five months of the crisis — yet the program quickly emerged as a tempting target for criminals.
To siphon away funds, scammers allegedly filed billions of dollars in unemployment claims in multiple states simultaneously and relied on suspicious, hard-to-trace emails. In some cases, they used more than 205,000 Social Security numbers that belonged to dead people. Other suspected criminals obtained benefits using the identities of prisoners who were ineligible for aid.
But officials at the watchdog office warned their accounting still may be incomplete: They said they were not able to access more updated federal prisoner data from the Justice Department, and acknowledged that they only focused their report on “high risk” areas for fraud. The two factors raised the prospect that they could uncover billions of dollars in additional theft in the months to come.
The government also announced Thursday it had reached the “milestone” of charging 1,000 individuals with crimes involving jobless benefits during the pandemic. Kevin Chambers, the director for coronavirus-related enforcement for the Justice Department, described the situation in a statement as “unprecedented fraud.” The inspector general’s office, meanwhile, said it had opened roughly 190,000 investigative matters related to unemployment insurance fraud since the start of the pandemic.
Asked about the findings, a spokesman for the Labor Department pointed to a response letter from the agency included with the inspector general’s report. The agency said it is “committed” to helping states “combat the continually changing and new types of sophisticated fraud impacting the UI system.” It pointed to monetary grants and other recent guidance meant to help states improve their systems for awarding and monitoring claims.
It was the largest burst of emergency spending in U.S. history: Two years, six laws and more than $5 trillion intended to break the deadly grip of the coronavirus pandemic. The money spared the U.S. economy from ruin and put vaccines into millions of arms, but it also invited unprecedented levels of fraud, abuse and opportunism.
In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post is following the covid money trail to figure out what happened to all that cash.
The new report on unemployment fraud underscores the persistent challenge facing the federal government, two years after it approved the first of roughly $5 trillion in response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. That money helped rescue the economy from collapse early in the pandemic, yet it quickly became a ripe target for waste, fraud and abuse, as The Post has documented in a year-long series tracking the spending called the Covid Money Trail.
The scope of that theft has been vast: Earlier this week, federal prosecutors charged 47 defendants in an entirely different scheme targeting a program to provide free meals for needy children. The organization, Feeding Our Future, allegedly stole more than $250 million from the meal program in what the Justice Department described as the largest single fraud case targeting coronavirus aid to date.
Federal investigators similarly have raised alarms and pursued charges involving roughly $1 trillion in loans and grants meant to help small businesses. But theft isn’t the only issue: In some cases, the government’s generous aid proved ineffective or helped finance pet projects that had nothing to do with addressing the coronavirus, The Post has found. Republican governors, for example, tapped a $350 billion program meant to bolster their response to the crisis for a wide array of controversial political causes, including tax cuts and immigration crackdowns.
Beginning in 2020, Congress expanded unemployment benefits to meet the magnitude of the crisis. Lawmakers allowed a wider range of out-of-work Americans, including contractors for gig-economy companies such as Uber, to collect jobless aid for the first time. And Washington repeatedly augmented the size of those checks, at one point providing an extra $600 in weekly payments.
The crush of applications — amid historic unemployment — quickly overwhelmed the state workforce agencies that administer the program. Many of those agencies had been neglected for years, with underfunded staff relying on decades-old computers to process a historic number of requests for financial support. Millions of Americans saw massive delays in receiving aid as a result, creating chaos easily exploited by fraudsters, many of whom stole innocent Americans’ identities to obtain weekly checks in their name.
“Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds attracted fraudsters seeking to exploit the UI program — resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments,” Larry Turner, the inspector general for the Labor Department, said in a statement.
Studying the program between March and October 2020, the inspector general initially found more than $16 billion in potential fraud in key high-risk areas. But the watchdog more recently began warning that total was likely to rise, perhaps considerably. Testifying to Congress this March, Turner said there could have been $163 billion in overpayments, a term that includes fraud as well as money wrongly sent to innocent Americans. The amount was a projection, relying on a sample of federal spending to compute the total misspent funds among the nearly $900 billion in unemployment payments made during the pandemic.
On Thursday, federal watchdogs coupled their latest estimate with fresh criticism of the Labor Department, raising concern that investigators’ access to state unemployment data — to further find fraud — could be in jeopardy after 2023. The trouble, which dates back to an internal government dispute that The Post reported on this year, previously prompted the inspector general to raise alarms about its ability to conduct oversight.
But the Labor Department in its formal reply described the contention as “not fair,” citing the fact that it still must revise existing regulations. Separately, a White House official said Thursday that the administration is working to address the issue with accessing data. The individual spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
The sheer magnitude of the theft already has sparked a wave of federal enforcement actions, including this week, when a federal court sentenced an Illinois man to 39 months in prison for fraudulent obtaining unemployment benefits while he was incarcerated. The Biden administration similarly has ramped up its work to address the problem, including through the consideration of new government policies meant to crack down on identity theft in federal programs.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, praised the “strong effort to identify criminals.” But the senator stressed on Thursday the need for a legislative overhaul of the jobless benefits system.
“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.