ANNAPOLIS, MD — Fraudsters tried to swindle Maryland out of $501 million worth of unemployment claims, Gov. Larry Hogan said at a Wednesday press conference. The widespread scam used the stolen identities of 47,500 people from 12 different states. Maryland blocked the fraudulent claims, saving the state a half a billion dollars.
“It is obviously a coordinated, criminal enterprise because this is not, you know, just random people in their basement that stole somebody’s identity,” Hogan said. “It’s a large, sophisticated criminal enterprise.”
The Maryland Department of Labor caught the attempted theft over the weekend of July 4 when workers noticed an influx of out-of-state residents applying for unemployment insurance. These identities were not stolen from Maryland's unemployment database, Hogan emphasized. The stolen identities came from previous federal breaches, he said.
Hogan said the identities of people who filed for unemployment insurance in Maryland were not compromised. Anybody who fears their information was stolen should email email@example.com.
States around the country are battling similar scams, said Tiffany Robinson, Maryland's secretary of labor. The FBI has urged the public to be wary of fraud in these vulnerable times.
Coronavirus relief legislation, called the CARES Act, delivered federal money in March to states and businesses struggling to retain workers. The act created a speedy, but troublesome option that allowed claimants to "self-verify" their unemployment, Robinson said. Previously, employers had to verify a person's loss of work before they could collect unemployment insurance.
Robinson said the new workaround opened the door to fraud that Maryland thwarted.
"As states across the country continue to experience unprecedented volume of claims, fraudsters are capitalizing upon the hardships created by the pandemic," Robinson said.
The U.S. Department of Labor also helped Maryland's investigation. The department knows coronavirus and scams seem to go hand-in-hand.
Special Agent Derek Pickle said that the fraudulent unemployment claims used to account for 10 percent of the inspector general's workload. Now, those claims demand more than half of his attention.
"I personally want to commend Secretary Robinson and her team," Pickle said. "The diligence exhibited by your personnel in identifying this fraud and bringing it to our attention was outstanding."
Maryland has administered $4.3 billion worth of unemployment claims since the pandemic started, serving 489,000 residents. As of Wednesday, 96.4 percent of those claims had processed, according to the governor. A few were delayed by the scam, but Hogan said the state is working to deliver unemployment insurance to Marylanders legitimately in need.
The number of recent unemployment claims in Maryland rival some of the most trying economic times in recent state history. Hogan said more Marylanders have filed for unemployment in the last few months than the last three years combined. Even during the 2008 recession, it took the state 18 months to register this many unemployment claims, he said.
More than 971,000 Marylanders filed for unemployment since coronavirus shutdowns began, according to state data.
In a typical week, 2,000 to 6,500 people file for unemployment. In the week ending in July 4, 66,559 Maryland workers summited claims. That was up 18.5 percent from the 56,126 filings the week prior.
“Over the past few months, America has seen an unprecedented economic collapse,” Hogan said. “Marylanders have not been immune to this national economic collapse.”
Maryland is currently in Phase Two of its reopening plan. About 95 percent of the state's economy is open, the governor said.
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