Cybercriminals have stolen $8 billion in U.S. federal pandemic unemployment aid meant to help families survive the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor department says.
Larry Turner, acting inspector-general of the department, predicted $26 billion in federal aid programs provided by the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance law could eventually be lost to fraud and scams.
"Criminal gangs," mostly from the U.S., had no problem beating "antiquated" information technology systems used in many states, Turner said. Deceiving state unemployment offices isn't that great a challenge, he said.
Impostors are using fake employers to apply for unemployment benefits and are exploiting the masses of stolen personal information obtained by hacking and sold on the illegal "dark web" to appear legitimate.
The department's employment and training administration said $347 billion in benefits had been paid to applicants as of last week under the programs paid for by the Cares Act. The $8 billion stolen by cybercriminals so far represents 2% of this.
Labor department communications director Megan Sweeney said the department "is actively working with all states to combat fraud in unemployment insurance programs."
"The department requires states to work with the department...and to work collaboratively with other federal, state and local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute fraud and to work closely with financial institutions to recover fraudulent payments," Sweeney said, according to Politico.
Federal officials have warned states about fraud and scams. The Secret Service told state agencies of a "well-organized" ring exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to commit "large-scale fraud" against state unemployment insurance programs. The Secret Service said a cybercriminal ring based in Nigeria had recruited hundreds or thousands of people to submit applications using personal information stolen by hackers.
Many states are confirming these fraudulent claims. State workforce agencies are reporting unusually larger unemployment claims. Some states have already asked for federal assistance.
"We're fighting this fight with '70s-era technology with some modern Band-Aids put on top of it," Kansas' acting secretary of labor Ryan Wright said. "I would like to have seen a more aggressive response from the federal government."
Wright said his agency in 2019 had no cases of impostors using fake employers to apply for benefits. Over the past few months, however, it had stopped 55,000 such claims. Wright said the fraud was now "reaching a scope that is difficult for states to weed through."
Colorado estimated three-quarters of unemployment applications over the summer were fraudulent. State officials said they prevented as much as $1 billion in attempted thefts. On the other hand, criminals might still have stolen some $40 million, it said.
Montana's labor department said criminals stole $189 million from its unemployment aid program over the summer.