Ohio recovers $330M in jobless fraud


Josh Sweigart - Hamilton Journal-News



COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio identified in December more than $330 million in fraudulent unemployment benefit payments, according to state officials who launched new tools to get their hands around the rampant problem.

Most of the fraud occurred in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Henderson said. Federal lawmakers created that program for people who wouldn’t qualify for traditional unemployment but lost income because of COVID-19, such as independent contractors, the self-employed or part-time workers.

ODJFS identified 56,000 fraudulent payments in December through PUA alone, totaling $330 million. In the fourth quarter of 2020, traditional unemployment fraudulently paid out $2.3 million to 2,200 people, they believe.

“Identity theft and unemployment fraud are certainly widespread national challenges,” Henderson said.

All 50 states are experiencing similar issues, likely tied in-part to sophisticated overseas crime rings taking advantage of personal information compromised in data breaches in recent years.

The Ohio agency stopped about 100,000 suspected fraudulent claims from going out in December, Henderson said.

More than 70,000 people have reported through a new online tool launched this month that they suspect their identity was used to file fraudulent claims. Many people are finding out about the issue when they receive IRS tax forms about unemployment income they never received.

“For many Ohioans, often the first indication that their identity has been compromised is when they receive the 1099-G tax form from us in the mail,” Henderson said.

Chuck Backus of Springboro learned that someone apparently applied for unemployment in his name this week when he received mail from the state including a temporary PIN to access a claim he never made. The documents say the claim was just filed this month. He called ODJFS to report it and hung up after being on hold more than an hour listening to an automated message telling him to report the fraud online.

“You wait on the phone to tell them they are being robbed. You hang up and you’re like, it’s no wonder benefits programs are rife with fraud and abuse,” he said.

He went to the website but was put off from filling out the form because it asked for a full Social Security number, birth date and other detailed personal info.

“The information you have to give them is enough to give somebody the ability to take over your life,” he said. “Why don’t I just open a vein and give you my DNA on a website here?”

So now he is back to trying to get someone on the phone.

New reporting tools

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services launched a new hotline for people to call if they have concerns their identity was used to file for unemployment, and a new reporting tool for employers who suspect their employees’ identity was misused for unemployment.

Individuals who believe their personal information was compromised are advised to call 833-658-0394. The number is staffed by 50 workers 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The phone number complements an online portal ODJFS established for people to report suspected unemployment fraud in their name.

ODJFS advises employers who believe their employees’ information was improperly used to file a claim to visit unemployment.ohio.gov and click on “Report Identity Theft.” They will be directed to both a reporting portal and additional information.

Employers are discovering the fraud when they get a “request for separation information” from ODJFS for an individual who is still employed.

The number of 1099-G forms the state issues grew from 200,000 last year to 1.7 million last month. They were able to keep about 168,000 such forms from going out the door in December because they were suspected to be the result of identity theft.

Hotline:

State officials launched a hotline for people who suspect their identity was improperly used to file for unemployment benefits. The number is (833) 658-0394.

Website: Individuals and employers can visit unemployment.ohio.gov to report suspected unemployment fraud and obtain information on what to do if you or your employee’s identity may have been compromised.

Josh Sweigart

Hamilton Journal-News

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