Unemployment claims continued to be filed at a steady pace, with Idaho receiving 5,800 initial claims and Washington getting 138,733 during the week of May 10-16.
Since the start of the coronavirus shutdown in mid-March, a total of 136,901 workers in Idaho have filed initial claims for unemployment benefits, while Washington has seen 1,937,576 total initial claims, according to the two states’ labor departments.
In Idaho, the number of people who continued to request benefits dropped to 60,121 last week. As of May 16, total benefit payments attributed to COVID-19 layoffs in Idaho reached $240 million, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.
In Washington last week, more than $1 billion was paid to 565,764 individual claims. To date, the state has paid out nearly $3.8 billion in benefits to more than 768,000 people, including federal money that is providing the unemployed with an additional $600 per week on top of the state’s weekly maximum benefit of as much as $790 per week.
Washington is also dealing with impostors who have used the stolen information of tens of thousands of people in the state to fraudulently receive hundreds of millions of dollars in unemployment benefits, the head of the state’s Employment Security Department said Thursday.
Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the state is working with federal law enforcement, financial institutions and the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate the fraud and try to recover the money paid out during the huge spike in joblessness during the coronavirus crisis.
LeVine said she can’t release specific numbers or details of the ongoing investigation. But she said that countermeasures taken by the state have “prevented hundreds of millions of additional dollars from going out to criminals and have prevented thousands of fraudulent claims being filed.”
LeVine said that in addition to other measures the agency has already taken, they will continue to delay payments — a step they first took last week — to all applicants in order to take extra steps to verify claims. Previously, applicants set up for direct deposit receive their money within 24 to 48 hours. Now, they will need to wait an additional two days.
The New York Times and Seattle Times have previously reported that a U.S. Secret Service alert issued last week identified Washington as the top target so far of a Nigerian fraud ring seeking to commit large-scale fraud against state unemployment insurance programs. LeVine said she couldn’t speak to the details of the investigation, but said that the Secret Service alert wasn’t directly shared with her, but that the agency received it through other sources.
But LeVine said agency officials realized something was amiss before that alert, once they started receiving communication from employers or employees who received information about unemployment benefits that the employee didn’t seek.
More than 1.1 million people in Washington have filed for unemployment benefits since businesses started closing in March because of COVID-19, but state officials said Thursday they believe some portion of an increase in claims seen in the past week are because of so-called “impostor fraud” claims.
LeVine said previously that there have been no data breaches at the agency, and that 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.
“These are very sophisticated criminals who have pretty robust collections of information on people, and they are activating and monetizing that information,” she said.