Washington’s unemployment system sees a spike in impostors

Some 1.3 million people filed last week, but payments are on hold for up two days to verify claims.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Because of an increase in attempted “impostor fraud” applications for weekly unemployment benefits during the ongoing coranavirus pandemic, officials in said Thursday they will be holding all payments for up to two days this week while they take additional steps to verify claims.

State Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said that there have been no data breaches at the agency, but she said the recent fraud attempts are cases where someone’s personal information has been previously stolen from other sources — like during the 2017 Equifax breach — and is now being used to filed for benefits.

She said that Washington’s high weekly maximum benefit of up to $790 per week, in addition to the extra weekly $600 from the federal economic package, are among the reasons the system is “an attractive target for fraudsters.”

“Impostor fraud is not new and it is not unique,” she said. “What’s new is the scale, and that is profound.”

LeVine said she couldn’t give specific numbers right now but said that once the department spots an irregularity in an application, it is flagged and the account is put on hold until it can be investigated. She said they then cross-match claims data in a new national fraud detection system. She said that in the past week, they’ve learned of many of the cases after hearing from employers or employees who received notifications about claims that they did not file.

She said that the department has increased staffing on its fraud line, and that the decision to hold payments for a few days this week “will give us the opportunity, out of an abundance of caution, so that that we can validate claims as authentic.”

More than 1 million people in Washington have filed for unemployment benefits since businesses started closing in March due to COVID-19, and the state has paid out nearly $2.9 billion in benefits.

LeVine said that more than 751,000 people who have filed an initial claim have been paid and that the agency is working to expedite payments for those still waiting, while protecting the system from those seeking to fraudulently gain access to payments. About 50,000 claims are currently in adjudication.

More than 1.3 million claims for unemployment benefits — with some of that number reflecting people who filed multiple claims seeking retroactive payments — were filed for the week of May 3-9, and more than $767 million was paid to 538,635 individual claims.

Nationwide, more than 36 million people have now filed for jobless aid over the past two months. The state’s stay-home order that closed all non-essential businesses has already been extended once and is currently in place through May 31, and the state is in the early stages of a four-stage lifting of restrictions. There will be a minimum of three weeks between each phase, but rural counties that meet certain metrics are allowed to apply to speed up the phases.

More than 17,500 people in Washington state have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 975 have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

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