Secret Service seizes $2 billion in fraudulent unemployment payments, returns funds to states

Checks are printed at the U.S. Treasury Philadelphia Finance Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Dennis Brack | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Secret Service has confiscated and returned to states about $2 billion in stolen Covid unemployment relief funds, agency officials said Wednesday.

Programs in at least 30 states received the money after the agency determined recipients had fraudulently applied for pandemic-related unemployment.

“This is typical of the cyber fraud we deal with annually. It’s just compounded based on additional funds (from) Covid relief,” Roy Dotson, Secret Service assistant special agent in charge, told CNBC. “The criminals did take full advantage of the programs to try to steal from them.”

He said the $2 billion returned to the states was a “conservative estimate” and that pandemic-related fraud investigations are ongoing. He said last year that the Secret Service sent advisories to financial institutions to flag possibly fraudulent accounts where the money may have been deposited.

Dotson said fraudsters typically stole the identities of people who qualified for unemployment benefits. In other cases, he said, identities were stolen from people who hadn’t even filed for unemployment.

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The fast rollout of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program made it easy prey for fraudsters. The Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General, in a report released in March, said that at least $89 billion of the estimated $896 billion in unemployment program funds “could be paid improperly, with a significant portion attributable to fraud.”

The Labor Department has said it would work with the Secret Service, the Justice Department and other agencies “to vigorously pursue those who defraud the unemployment insurance program and safeguard benefits intended for unemployed workers.”

The Secret Service also announced that it has also seized more than $640 million in funds defrauded primarily from the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. It opened some 690 unemployment insurance investigations and 720 investigations related to those two programs.

CNBC previously revealed that millions of COVID-19 funds had been laundered through online investment platforms.

NBC News reported in February that most of the 50 state workforce agencies did not yet know the full extent of their losses.

“I imagine this will take another year or two to sort out,” Dotson said.

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