Florida’s unemployment agency is investigating close to 50,000 cases of possible claims fraud, with many tied to possible identity theft against jobless workers seeking benefits.
According to a dashboard maintained by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, 48,219 benefits claims have been flagged for fraud. In recent statements, the DEO said it suspected fraud as the source for many of the claims filed in January, although it has yet to publicly disclose any verified numbers.
The state’s enhanced attention to fraud came after the number of weekly initial unemployment claims more than tripled for the weeks ended Jan. 16 and 23, to between 60,000 and 70,000 claims. The increases interrupted a steady trend of filings since December in the 20,000 to 25,000 range.
Economists at the time attributed the January surge in part to seasonal filings by temporary holiday workers whose jobs had expired and to newly terminated workers thrown out of work due to COVID-related cutbacks by large employers such as Disney.
New pandemic low
After apparently weeding out suspected fraudulent claims, the weekly filings have returned to their lower ranges. On Thursday. the U.S. Department of Labor reported that Florida’s filings hit a pandemic-low of 16,100 new claims for the week ended Feb. 20, a decline 5,464 from the week before.
Nationwide, new claims plunged to an unexpected 730,000, which was 111,000 fewer than the week before and the lowest reading since November. Other heavily populated states such as California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas also reported decreases, contributing to the national decline.
Enhanced fraud detection
The state does not appear to have reached the point of prosecuting suspected offenders for stealing government funds or people’s identities.
The state Attorney General’s Office in Tallahassee and the three state attorney’s offices in South Florida all said in recent weeks that they have not received any case referrals from the DEO; nor have they initiated any criminal cases.
Federal prosecutors in South Florida have focused on COVID fraud schemes against U.S.-backed business loan programs and direct relief payments to taxpayers.
Last year, the DEO and ID.me, an identity verification service, partnered to help claims applicants who were locked out of their accounts. Recently, the effort was expanded to help keep identities “secure from fraudulent activity and bolster current fraud prevention measures,” the agency said.
Any new applicants who are filing for state benefits need to verify their identities through ID.me, the agency said. The DEO also said it created an online fraud form for people to report benefits fraud or identity theft.
A sharp decline in reported state claims for the week ended Feb. 6 brought the claims numbers back to toward the earlier January trend, an agency spokesman said.
“The decrease in initial claims filed for the week ending February 6, 2021, could be attributed towards the department’s integration of ID.me to help mitigate fraudulent claims and protect claimants’ identities,” a spokesman said.
He added that the state is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to revise the outsized figures reported in January.
As of Feb. 22, the DEO has paid nearly 2.3 million people over $22.8 billion in state and federally funded jobless benefits since March 15, 2020.