• =?UTF-8?Q?Epic_Covid_fraud_galls_state_watchdogs=3A_=E2=80=98The_syste?

    From (David P.)@21:1/5 to All on Thu Jun 9 11:07:39 2022
    Epic Covid fraud galls state watchdogs: ‘The system failed at almost every conceivable level’
    By Atkins, Salam, Ramgopal & Fitzpatrick, April 6, 2022, NBC News

    Not long after pandemic unemployment aid began to flow in Ohio,
    the state’s top auditor grew concerned. Keith Faber had seen
    reports that a Nigerian crime ring had scammed Washington state
    out of millions of dollars. He wanted to know whether the Ohio
    agency in charge of releasing aid was seeing any evidence of fraud.
    “They pretty much said: ‘Nothing to see here, ma’am. Just move on,’” Faber recalled. He soon found out there was, in fact, a lot to see there.

    A statewide audit turned up some highly alarming findings: More than
    80,000 claims had been paid out to prisoners and more than 140,000 to
    dead people. Officials now believe the vast majority that came from
    people who seemed to be behind bars were actually filed by scammers
    who stole their identities. The fraud was so pervasive that someone
    had even filed an unemployment claim for Faber himself. “When we got it,
    it shocked me that everything was correct on the claim except for the
    bank account number,” Faber said. The claim was denied, but Faber
    now believes the state doled out more than $5 billion in improper
    payments, some of which went to cyber scammers at home and abroad who
    pulled off what has been described as the biggest fraud in a generation.

    Estimates of the stolen aid money start at about $100 billion and
    stretch as high as $400 billion — nearly half of the Covid unemployment relief program. Experts say it is likely to take years to account for
    the full scope of the fraud. Interviews with dozens of people on the
    front lines, including five state auditors, shed new light on the poor planning and missed red flags that allowed scammers to plunder billions
    of dollars intended for people who lost jobs during the pandemic.

    “The system failed at almost every conceivable level,” Faber said.

    Congress passed the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill in March 2020, creating a program that provided aid money to self-employed people and
    gig workers who wouldn't typically be eligible for unemployment insurance.
    The claimants weren't required to submit documentation to prove their employment.
    The hard part was left to the states. With the economy in a tailspin, state agencies faced enormous pressure to process an unprecedented flood of unemployment claims as quickly as possible.

    In Mississippi, the Dept of Employment Security dropped basic internal controls, such as checking to see whether applicants were actively
    seeking work or even whether their IP addresses were from in the state,
    State Auditor Shad White said. White said that as he viewed the results
    of his first audit, he thought to himself: “This is tragic.”
    “When you see improper payments in a program, it’s disheartening,”
    White said. “But the thing that makes this particularly disheartening
    is that the dollar amounts are huge.” He estimates that the state lost
    over $500 million in Covid unemployment fraud and overpayments. “These
    are big dollar totals relative to our overall budget,” he said. “We struggled last year in the state to find another $50 million to increase
    our public school teacher pay.”

    White said he has had to accept that with much of the fraud carried out
    by international criminals, there is almost no chance Mississippi will
    be able to recoup its money. “I’m not going to be able to get a lot
    of the money back unless you give me a C-17 and a Black Hawk,” White
    said sarcastically, referring to U.S. military aircraft.

    In the months after the signing of the CARES Act, Illinois officials
    signed a $29 million deal with Deloitte Consulting to help vet and
    process unemployment claims. But the system they set up had flaws
    that allowed payments to go out to people whose identities weren’t validated, Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino said. “When you
    have faults within the system, it’s garbage in, garbage out,” he said.
    The “garbage” included 63 approved claims for people who were 90 or
    older and 164 for people who were 13 or younger — not the ages normally associated with holding jobs in the U.S.

    Mautino’s initial audit, which was limited to the early part of the
    program, found that roughly $155 million was paid to suspected
    fraudsters and other potentially ineligible claimants. “And that’s within the first seven weeks of data,” he said, referring to the
    period from May 2020 to the end of June 2020.

    A Deloitte spokeswoman, Karen Walsh, said everyone who applied for
    pandemic unemployment aid in Illinois had to authenticate themselves
    using “an industry-leading, third-party identity verification and
    fraud prevention solution.” “To date, this process has stopped
    nearly 624,000 applications until the individuals associated with
    those claims could provide additional information to confirm their identities,” Walsh said.

    Spokespeople for state workforce agencies in Ohio and Illinois
    acknowledged that large amounts of fraud took place but said the
    agencies did the best they could under the extraordinary circumstances.
    In many states, understaffed agency call centers were swamped.
    A large number of people had the nightmarish experience of losing
    their jobs and then seeking aid — only to find out their identities
    had already been used by fraudsters. Haley Andrews, 27, a single mom
    from New Jersey, lost her accounting job in July. Because her identity
    was stolen, she has spent over 8 months trying to get the state to
    pay her the $16,000 in unemployment she says she is owed. With no
    income or relief money, Andrews could no longer afford child care
    for her two kids, ages 7 and 1. In November, she began working for
    DoorDash to make ends meet, delivering food to people with her 2 kids
    in the back seat of her Jeep. “My life has been ruined,” Andrews said.

    While most scammers are believed to have mined the dark web to steal people’s identities, some are accused of carrying out appalling crimes.
    A caregiver for the intellectually disabled filed more than $100,000
    in fraudulent unemployment claims in Pennsylvania and New Jersey using
    his clients’ identities, authorities say. The caregiver, Nelson Fornah,
    was caught after a Pennsylvania state agency requested that a batch of suspicious claims be verified by videoconference through ID.me, a private company contracted by the state to defend against fraud. The clients
    appeared on screen — some of them appearing to be distressed & confused — as the caregiver spoke for them off-camera in an effort to get around
    the system, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office. Fornah was arrested on charges of theft and related offenses. He hasn't entered a plea, and his lawyer declined to comment.

    An NBC News review of Labor Dept data found that in the two months
    after states started requiring applicants to verify their identities
    through ID.me, the number of pandemic unemployment claims plummeted —
    by 85% in California, 91% in New York and an astounding 97% in Arizona — suggesting huge numbers of applications were fake. The problems
    encountered by the states were not at all surprising to Jon Coss, the
    VP of risk, fraud and compliance at Thomson Reuters. About 5 years
    ago, 23 states were using anti-fraud software created by Coss. But
    funding dried up, and most of the unemployment contracts ended, leaving
    many states with antiquated systems ill-equipped to detect fraudulent
    claims or even identify them after the fact, he said.
    “It’s gonna take a long time to figure out just how bad we were hit,
    and it’s going to take even longer to clean it up,” he said.

    Thomson Reuters is now working with 25 state workforce agencies,
    giving Coss a view into the depth of the crisis. “We’re seeing things like 5,000 claims to a vacant house,” he said. The $1.9 trillion
    American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden last year, set aside
    $2 billion for upgrading the unemployment insurance system, including
    hundreds of millions of dollars in anti-fraud grants to states. And
    the Labor Dept has recently adopted new policies to make it easier to
    detect fraud, including allowing federal investigators to obtain state unemployment records, which they previously had to subpoena.

    “We know that while we inherited these messes, it was still on us to
    fix what we could and to take steps to prevent this level of fraud
    from happening again,” said White House senior advisor Gene Sperling,
    who was tapped by Biden to oversee the implementation of the plan.


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