People out of work aren’t the only ones benefiting from unemployment insurance during the pandemic. A staggering amount of money has also been paid out to scammers.
Like many people, Pam Henry has been working from home this past year, but she’s used to it.
"I was pre-pandemic working from home anyway, so this was no real transition, " said Henry.
For 40 years she’s worked as an engineer.
“No blips at all; I’ve been very, very fortunate,” she said.
So when she got a call from her human resources department that an unemployment claim was filed in her name, she was floored.
"Well, it was a little scary," she said.
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She figured she could settle this with a quick phone call to the Maryland Department of Labor.
"That’s what I thought. That’s not the case at all, " said Henry.
Henry said she left numerous messages with the fraud department and called back a number of times.
"I did it at least once a day, sometimes twice a day, for at least a good week," she said.
But Henry said she never heard back from anyone. Then she received a letter from the agency confirming her unemployment claim had been processed.
"I was taken aback and I was frightened because I, first of all, didn’t deserve it, " she said.
Unemployment fraud has overwhelmed states nationwide during the pandemic. In Virginia alone $50 million has been paid in fraudulent unemployment claims. Maryland and D.C. could not tell News4 how much had been paid.
"These moneys that are being paid out fraudulently are taxpayer dollars, and so there’s the public that’s footing the bill for this," said William Walton, deputy commissioner with the Virginia Employment Commission.
The VEC said pre-pandemic its fraud unit had a staff of six investigators. Now, they have 22 and are still recruiting.
"We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us to track down these fraudsters and recover as much of that money as we can, " said Walton.
And trying to stay a step ahead of scammers is a challenge. News4 learned of a new scheme popping up where they’re hacking into existing unemployment accounts and changing banking information.
"That's a very recent phenomenon that we're dealing with," said Walton.
Rachel Cole said it happened to her.
"I was receiving partial unemployment until November of 2020,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘OK, something’s not right.’"
She contacted the VEC to ask why her benefits suddenly stopped and was stunned by the answer.
"She said, ‘Miss Cole, you changed your account information.’ And I said, ‘No, I surely didn’t,’" Cole said.
She filed a claim with the fraud unit and is still waiting for her issue to be resolved.
"It’s ridiculous. No one should have to do this or go through this at all," said Cole.
Even with additional staffing in the fraud unit, Walton said it takes time to investigates these cases.
"It may not be immediate, but we are working these cases as quickly as we can," he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently launched a website to assist victims of unemployment fraud, connecting them to sites to help them file their claims.
When Henry didn’t hear from the fraud department, she took matters into her own hands.
"We don’t have enough people that are investigating," she said.
She called lawmakers, the police and also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor.
"Then I received a phone call from the Maryland Department of Labor as a result of my federal complaint, " she said.
She finally was able to confirm no money had yet been paid out in her name and her private information, including her social security number, was removed from the false claim.
"There are people that need these benefits,” she said. “I don’t want somebody taking benefits from somebody that truly needs it.”
Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.