OLYMPIA – State officials are seeing an influx of fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits as they continue to deal with record numbers of claims from people forced out of work by shutdowns from the COVID-19 epidemic.
Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the agency is cracking down on imposters who are claiming to be unemployed Washington workers. The people filing fraudulent claims may have harvested personal information from earlier breaches of private or government databases, although she emphasized the state’s database has not been hacked.
To help weed out fraudulent claims, the department will hold payments for two days to validate recent incoming claims as authentic.
Washington became “an attractive target for fraudsters” because it is among the first to start paying federal unemployment benefits tied to the COVID-19 relief packages, and because it has suspended the regular practice of delaying the payment of new claims for a week as a way of getting benefits to recipients faster, LeVine said.
Victims of the fraud will not be required to repay the money and their benefits won’t be affected, she said.
The department is notifying workers and businesses who may be victims of the fraudulent claims, and asking them to go to a special section of the website at esd.wa.gov/fraud. It is also warning them to beware of any online correspondence about fraud that doesn’t come from esd.wa.gov, to avoid attempts by scammers to collect their information.
The increase in fraudulent claims began in early May. The department does not yet have an estimate on how many have been filed or how much has been paid, she said.
Because some of the benefits being paid to unemployed workers come from the federal government, the department is working with federal as well as state law enforcement officials.
Claims up 15%
in Spokane County
The number of new unemployment claims filed in Washington rose in the week ending May 9 from the previous week. The state had 109,425 new claims for standard state unemployment benefits, up about 9%, and slightly more than 103,000 new claims for federal aid.
Some workers are able to file for more than one type of benefit, and not all claims are immediately verified. The state has 751,149 people receiving some form of benefits and has paid out $767 million in total benefits last week, up about $130 million from the previous week.
Since the pandemic began to take an economic toll 10 weeks ago, the state has paid a total of $2.9 billion in claims.
Laid-off workers in Spokane County filed 6,594 of those new unemployment claims last week, a 15% increase over the prior week, according to the department. Workers in the county have filed a total of 66,540 jobless claims since the pandemic took hold in the state in mid-March.
In data released Thursday, the greatest number of unemployment benefit applications in the county were from health care and social assistance workers, who filed 1,038 new claims. Employees in the education sector filed 792, and government workers filed 314.
“Those three industries – they are good industries,” said Doug Tweedy, regional economist for the department. “Education and health care have been recession-resistant. A large share of our jobs is in those two areas, so when we start seeing layoffs in those industries, it’s concerning.”
The county continues to experience layoffs in retail trade, as well as accommodation and food-service sectors, Tweedy added.
The ESD is beginning to see increases in regular unemployment claims, rather than claims for pandemic-assistance programs. It’s unknown if claims in the county will continue to increase or remain steady in coming weeks, Tweedy said.
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