By JOSH FRIEDMAN
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, the state of California has paid out at least $11 billion in unemployment funds to fraudsters, and the total could be as high as $31 billion.
Approximately 10 percent of the $114 billion in unemployment claims since the initial shutdown orders in March have been confirmed to be fraudulent, said California Labor Secretary Julie Su during a press conference on Monday. Another 17 percent of the claims are potentially fraudulent and remain under investigation.
“There is no sugarcoating this,” Su said. “California did not have sufficient security measures in place to prevent this level of fraud. Criminals took advantage of the situation.”
State officials previously acknowledged they paid about $400 million in unemployment benefits in the names of prison inmates. They are now acknowledging crime rings based in Nigeria, China and Russia also targeted California’s unemployment benefits.
Fraud rings use various schemes to steal a victim’s identity and open a fraudulent claim under the person’s name. Then, they arrange to have payments mailed to a house in California where the claimant purportedly lives, officials said.
Typically, crime rings seek to have a Bank of America debit card issued for unemployment payments, which is mailed to an empty house, perhaps one that is up for sale. The fraudsters use a “mule” to pick up the debit card for a cut of the stolen money and mail the bulk of the funds to the crime rings.
Criminals are also sharing open-source code software on the dark web for hackers to use, which may be causing the crime wave to expand.
Anti-crime efforts have enabled state officials to block as much as $60 billion in fraudulent payments. The Employment Development Department (EDD) suspended unemployment payments to 1.4 million California workers and is progressing slowly at unfreezing the red-flagged accounts.