Scammers may have taken $45.6 bn in US pandemic aid: agency

WASHINGTON, United States, (AFP) - A US government watchdog said fraudulent jobless benefits paid out during the pandemic could amount to as much as $45.6 billion, far higher than previous estimates.

The Office of the Inspector General for the US Labor Department said Thursday it has charged more than 1,000 individuals with fraud for claiming unemployment insurance (UI) they were not entitled to.

"This milestone of 1,000 individuals being charged with crimes involving UI fraud and the identification of $45.6 billion in potentially fraudulent UI payments highlights the magnitude of this problem," Inspector General Larry D. Turner said in a statement.

Scammers may have taken the funds by filing for unemployment benefits in multiple states, with suspicious emails, or using the identity of deceased people or federal prisoners, the OIG said in its latest report.

"Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds attracted fraudsters seeking to exploit the UI program -- resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments," Turner said.

The potential fraud lasted from March 2020 to April 2022, but despite repeated warnings about the issues to the department's Employment and Training Administration, "as of the date of this alert memorandum, ETA has not taken sufficient action to implement these recommendations," the report said

The new total is nearly $30 billion more than the last estimate in June.

The ETA's "lack of sufficient action significantly increases the risk of even more UI payments to ineligible claimants."

At the start of the pandemic, Congress rolled out massive financial aid programs providing expanded benefits for tens of millions of workers who had been laid off.

Officials at the time acknowledged that some of the programs could have flaws but stressed the need to get the aid out quickly.

The report said the programs presented "a high-value target" for criminal groups to exploit.

In a letter to the OIG included in the report, the ETA said it is "committed to continuing its efforts" to identify and combat "the continually changing and new types of sophisticated fraud."

It also laid out steps it has taken in response to previous warnings from the watchdog, but took exception to some of the report's charges, including noting that workers are permitted to file claims in multiple states with some limits.

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