CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The amount of money Rhode Island has paid in fraudulent unemployment claims tied to the pandemic continues to rise, although state leaders said new activity has slowed.
The R.I. Department of Labor and Training reports that since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic it has paid $121 million to fraudsters who have ripped off the state’s joblessness program. But that figure could be much higher, as the state estimates there’s another $456 million in suspected fraud cases.
“Bad people are good at doing bad things and they attacked these systems from Maine to California,” DLT Director Matt Weldon told Target 12.
The $121 million represents a 23% increase since the R.I. Auditor General released a report last July showing the number totaled about $98 million. But Weldon said that while there’s always fraudulent activity tied to joblessness programs, the sharp spike in scammers seen at the beginning of the pandemic has slowed considerably ever since.
“Very few cases that are paid now are fraudulent,” he said.
Weldon said even though there are far fewer scammers applying for jobless benefits now, the fraudulent number has skyrocketed because the agency has gotten faster at confirming suspected fraud as phony claims.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor last week announced $653 million in grants for states to modernize technology systems tied to unemployment insurance programs, and Weldon said they are putting together a plan to apply for a portion of those funds.
Weldon highlighted that fraudsters took advantage of the state’s unemployment insurance program by stealing people’s identities and filing for jobless money rather than attacking the underlying system itself.
But he’s hopeful — if successful in getting some of the federal grant money — they can use the funds to improve a system that’s antiquated and went under a massive strain during the pandemic.
“Unemployment is funded entirely by the federal government and that allocation has gone down over the years,” Weldon said. “If we are going to replace the main frame, which is an old system, then we need federal appropriations.”
Weldon said state and federal law enforcement continues to go after those who stole unemployment insurance across the country during the pandemic, but he admitted it was challenging in part because many of the fraudsters come from overseas.
For people who feel like they may be victims of unemployment insurance fraud, Wheldon encouraged them to visit the DLT website and follow prompts to file a report. He said those claims would be examined and responded to appropriately.
“Don’t panic — it’s happened to just about everyone, including me,” he said. “It happened to my wife early in the pandemic.”