The issue of unemployment compensation fraud has exploded into the state spotlight, with statements from the Wolf administration and a group of state House members including several from the Indiana area.
“The widespread fraud impacting Pennsylvania residents has reached an absolutely unacceptable level,” state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, said, a day after he and 50 other lawmakers sent a letter to a group of state officials.
“It is with great concern that we ask you and your agencies to take prompt and decisive action in stemming the overwhelming wave of fraudulent UC claims that have adversely affected our constituents, both employees and employers,” the group wrote to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier, Revenue Secretary C. Daniel Hassell, Auditor General Tim DeFoor and Treasurer Stacy Garrity.
“While I understand that it is difficult to track and prosecute the violators due to their use of advanced and ever-changing technologies, I believe our state government could be doing a better job at the attempt,” Struzzi said.
“Fraud is an unfortunate byproduct of any disaster, and we are seeing the proof of that during the global COVID-19 pandemic,” Berrier said Wednesday in a joint press release with Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation Director Major Jeremy Richard and state Department of Banking and Securities Deputy Secretary for Financial Services Tim Artrun.
Area state police barracks regularly have been reporting complaints of unknown persons attempting to obtain benefits utilizing the identity of other persons. On Tuesday, for instance, Kittanning state police received complaints from a 57-year-old man and 22-year-old woman, both calling from an address in Valley Township between Kittanning and Yatesboro.
“Realize it can happen to you,” Richard said. “If you have been a victim, don’t be embarrassed. Instead, report it to law enforcement. The Pennsylvania State Police works closely with its local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to investigate fraud, identity theft, and scams. The sooner law enforcement knows, the better the chances are of recovering your money and catching the scammers.”
The matter also was a topic of discussion last week at the Indiana Borough Council meeting, where Sgt. Eric Slovinsky reported “close to 25 to 30” reports of fraudulent filings in a two-week period.
“Unfortunately, scams and fraud are growing more common while also becoming increasingly more sophisticated,” Artrun said. “If you are being contacted unexpectedly with a request for your personal or financial information with promises of something that seems too good to be true, it likely is.”
Such contacts were going on prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. State officials said there were more than 11,000 data breaches that caused the exposure of more than 1.6 billion records in the U.S. over a span of about 15 years.
They said many individuals whose personal data was leaked during these breaches are unaware until a fraudster uses their identity to apply for unemployment benefits and they receive notification that a benefits application has been filed in their name.
The 51 Republican lawmakers who signed said they have been hearing from employers that operate in multiple states “that not only are the UC fraud claims in Pennsylvania far more numerous here than any other state, but the UC paperwork is considerably more cumbersome, further burdening pandemic-weary business owners who are struggling to find workers and keep their businesses running and their employees and customers safe.”
Signers of that letter include Struzzi, House Speaker Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County; and Reps. Abby Major of Ford City; Brian Smith of Punxsutawney; Michael Armanini of DuBois; Carrie DelRosso of Springdale; Eric Nelson of Hempfield Township; James Rigby of Ferndale; Louis Schmitt Jr. of Altoona; Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry Township; and Leslie Rossi of Unity Township.
“We join together with members of our business community in calling on you to create a multi-agency task force which will hunt down the criminals, implement antifraud technology and procedures, conduct an audit of UC processes during the pandemic and get an accounting as to how much tax money is being wasted approving false claims, and being stolen by criminals from the UC fund,” the lawmakers continued.
“We will be happy to work with you to provide solutions to these problems. We cannot continue to sit by while our constituents suffer,” they concluded. “After a year and a half, UC phone lines still go unanswered.”
The state officials said L&I works with the National Unemployment Insurance Fraud Task Force and other partners, including the FBI, Homeland Security and additional law enforcement agencies, the state treasury and the state attorney general’s office, to identify and block new fraud methods and stop fraud attempts.
“It’s frustrating that thousands of data breaches that occurred outside of L&I — and outside of the control of consumers who often had no choice but to give companies their personal data — are now resulting in widespread unemployment fraud attempts,” Berrier continued. “We strongly urge everyone to remain vigilant about fraud and to notify authorities of any suspected fraud activity.”
She said L&I utilizes numerous fraud-detection measures, including using virtual identity verification vendor ID.me, to verify the identities of all new unemployment applicants.
“Since the new UC benefits system went live June 8, we have prevented approximately $1 billion in state and federal dollars from being paid out to fraudsters,” the DLI secretary said.
Struzzi’s office pointed out that L&I encourages all victims of identity theft, whether through regular UC filings or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program to report it directly to L&I, as well as to their local police department and the Federal Trade Commission.
“Our constituents have been through a lot during the pandemic and many are still struggling to get back on their feet,” Struzzi said. “They deserve more than this. Additional resources dedicated to this cause through the Department of Labor and Industry and the Attorney General’s office are certainly warranted.”
Struzzi’s office and other authorities also suggested calling the Pennsylvania Fraud Hotline at (800) 692-7469. L&I also urges victims to file a police report and provide a copy to the Office of Unemployment Compensation.
Artrun said anyone can contact the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities with questions or complaints about a financial transaction, company or product, at 1 (800) PA-BANKS (800-722-2657) or using the online complaint form found on the dobs.pa.gov website.
Struzzi’s office also suggested contacting the three major credit reporting bureaus, or starting a recovery plan with the FTC by visiting www.identitytheft.gov.