Residents across Louisiana have received letters tied to fake unemployment claims, approvals for benefits and even received debit cards loaded with cash benefits for people they don't know who are using their home address as the state sorts through thousands of suspicious new jobless claims.
The Louisiana Workforce Commission, which said earlier this week that it already has stopped 160,000 bogus claims since the coronavirus pandemic started, is looking into an unexpected spike over the past two weeks that tripled the number of applications for unemployment insurance benefits that the agency had been receiving.
Louisiana has halted payments on tens of thousands of new unemployment claims filed after Nov. 5 as it weeds through potentially fraudulent claims.
Pam Moore lived in Baton Rouge in the same house for 17 years and was surprised to find that an individual she's never heard of filed for unemployment benefits using her home address. Then she became even more concerned when that fake unemployment claim was approved by the Louisiana Workforce Commission for the maximum amount of state benefits, $247 a week, according to a letter of determination shared with The Advocate. Moore has since moved to Monroe, and her Baton Rouge home is for sale.
Moore was sent a letter dated Nov. 16 for a claim with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that was filed on Nov. 8 for a supposedly self-employed individual who had earned $58,000 in 2019.
LWC "completed a review and investigation of your claim," the letter said, and had determined that this person was eligible for $247 based on the information provided.
“I was afraid that someone was stealing my Social Security number," Moore said of her first reaction to the letter.
There were 39,500 new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims filed for the week ending Nov. 14, which is roughly three times the number of new applications filed for the week before that and the week after. The PUA program is mostly for independent contractors known as gig workers and others who are self-employed.
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In addition, there were more than 43,000 new traditional unemployment claims filed during the same time frame, where fewer than 10,000 new unemployment claims were filed both one week before and after. During a traditional unemployment claim process, the information is sent to the employer and can be disputed but that doesn't appear to be the case with self-employed individuals.
When Moore tried to verify whether her information had been stolen, the state's automated phone system told her that her Social Security number didn't match the claim associated with her address. As of Friday, she had not received any money from the state agency connected to the fake claim — but others have.
"I wonder how easily they are sending money to people; that concerns me," she said. "I hope that the state will be conscious about awarding claims because of the investigation. I would like to see the system checked out. I want people to get unemployment when they need it, but I don't want people to abuse the system."
Like Moore, several others, who saw the story about the state investigating the surge in suspicious unemployment claims, discussed their experiences, but wanted to remain anonymous, though they did share letters they received.
Last week, a New Orleans-area woman's mail carrier handed her 20 letters from LWC regarding unemployment benefits addressed to different individuals, none of whom she knew. So, she asked that the letters be returned to the sender.
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Another New Orleans resident, a man, said he got a letter for benefits approved in the name of a woman he does not know. The woman had claimed to be self-employed and told the state she had earned $58,000 in 2019. There were no women in public records residing in Louisiana with the name on the paperwork provided to The Advocate.
Another New Orleans resident got a letter from LWC claiming his son was approved for unemployment benefits, but he had not applied for them. Several days later, he got a debit card in the mail loaded with benefits. The letter he received was for a claim on the same date as Moore's fake claim and with the exact same self-employed earnings of $58,000 for 2019. When the resident tried to check whether his son's Social Security number was connected to the claim, it wasn't the right number.
It is not clear how much money has been released to individuals who have filed fake unemployment insurance claims, but the Louisiana Workforce Commission decided this week to halt any new payments for first-time claims made after Nov. 5 and is putting in additional security and identity verification procedures.
Individuals filing unemployment insurance claims must now upload personal identification to verify their identity, and individuals should expect to upload documents again if they have already done so.
Another Baton Rouge resident and small business owner found a debit card in her mailbox for unemployment benefits, even after reporting the fake unemployment claim in both her name and her deceased husband's name. She had several jobless benefit notices from the state in recent weeks for workers she's never employed. She's concerned about being accused of fraud herself as the state investigates the surge in new claims.
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Officials with the Louisiana Workforce Commission were unavailable for comment Friday, but had put out a statement on Wednesday about the surge in jobless claims, saying about 32,000 recent claims are being "rigorously reviewed for validity."
“Our office remains conscientious in detecting and combating fraud,” Ava Dejoie, secretary of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said Wednesday. “We are tracking this data to identify any potential fraudulent claims that may have been filed," she said.
“We monitor and review our systems on a daily basis as people committing the fraud constantly change their methods,” Dejoie said. “We work diligently with our security team and federal and state law enforcement to stay ahead of the fraud schemes.”
During a late October interview, Dejoie had said LWC was investigating 84,000 potentially fraudulent unemployment claims then. Some of those claims could have been legitimate and caused by paperwork errors, like a business not having a record of someone who worked for them or a person’s address being incorrectly entered.
But in some cases, crime rings have been trolling the internet to find publicly available information on Louisiana workers and attempting to file fraudulent unemployment claims on their behalf, without their knowledge, she said.
“Any time there are funds being used, a program to help people in the community, there is always going to be fraud,” she said at the time.
There are three categories of individuals who can report fraud online with the state agency: employers, employees and individuals and those who believe they are victims of identity theft, but there's no place to file reports as a third party such as those who had their addresses used but not their Social Security numbers.
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