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Nearly one-third of new pandemic unemployment claims last week were fake, Colorado’s labor department says

The FBI is investigating the multi-state scheme involving stolen identities and backdated claims. Meanwhile, the department stopped payments on half of them, resulting in $34 million not being paid.

A closed hair salon is pictured on a weekday afternoon along Federal Boulevard in Westminster on May 13, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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A large number of first-time claims for unemployment benefits filed last week in Colorado are suspected of being fraudulent, the state’s Department of Labor and Employment said Friday.

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An investigation found that nearly a third of new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims filed last week, or about 5,600, are likely fake. The labor department stopped paying about 2,800 of them, which would have resulted in $34 million in payments because applicants were allowed to claim they had been impacted by the coronavirus since February.

The remainder of the questionable claims are still being investigated. The agency has been working with local law enforcement, the FBI and the Secret Service to further identify the fraud. The labor department shared fraud data only from the past week’s claims, saying that the investigation was ongoing.

Cher Haavind, the labor department’s deputy executive director, said the scheme involves people using stolen personal identification information to file claims in multiple states under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. “Because of the eligibility factors within that program, it does lend itself to a higher incidence of fraud,” she said.

Haavind declined to go into detail about what the fraudsters did because she did not want to tip others off on how it could be done. But she said this only impacted the federal program that is paying out $600 a week to self-employed people, independent contractors and gig workers. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was funded through the CARES Act to give this group of workers some relief since they do not qualify for regular state unemployment benefits.

The number of Coloradans filing for unemployment benefits for the first time grew 22.2% during the week of June 13 from the prior week. Regular unemployment claims, which have been in decline since April 25, were still decreasing. But PUA claims saw about a 70% increase from the prior week — to 17,945, from 10,151. 



Other states have been reporting thousands of cases of fraudulent unemployment claims, including some cases discovered after a person who still had a job received unemployment documents or businesses saying they were getting unemployment notifications.

Jeff Fitzgerald, the state’s unemployment insurance director, said some of the 5,600 claims suspected of fraud could be legitimate. Those folks will need to call the PUA helpline (303-536-5615) to get their accounts verified. 

But he said he’s confident that most are fraud. That’s because the PUA system allowed folks to backdate claims to February, when the pandemic began to hit the United States. 

For now, the department is limiting online backdating to one week. If workers feel they need to backdate their claims further, they need to call the PUA helpline to get their accounts verified and adjusted.

More: Only 6% of calls to Colorado’s unemployment line are getting answered. But changes are on the horizon.

“By eliminating the backdating — that change went into effect mid-week this week — we already saw about a 40% decrease in new claim activity,” Fitzgerald said. 

Backdating was allowed when the state began administering the federal program on April 20. But Fitzgerald said it doesn’t make much sense that someone is only now asking for benefits for the first time and claiming they were impacted by the pandemic back in February.

“We’re now two months later, so it’d be somewhat illogical for someone who had legitimate impact on their income going back to February to just now be filing a new claim in June, and applying back dates all the way back to February,” Fitzgerald said.

Fraud tip-offs

In other states, some victims only learned their identity was stolen after receiving a notice of unemployment benefits or a debit card in the mail. Haavind said there is no way for people to check whether their identity was inappropriately used to file for benefits.

In some cases, the labor department is notifying victims but since this is an ongoing with law enforcement “investigating thousands of fraudulent claims,” Haavind said that she cannot confirm this happens in all instances.

But if you receive any notices indicating you’ve filed for unemployment, report it to the state agency by emailing cdle_labor_fraud@state.co.us. She offered other advice:

  • Contact the three major credit agencies Equifax, Experian and TransUnion and put a fraud alert on your name and Social Security Number.
  • Request a free copy of your credit report each year.
  • If you suspect your identity has been stolen, file a police report in person, if possible.
  • Visit the Federal Trade Commission’s information site on ID theft at ftc.gov.
  • Create a file and keep everything in one place so you know who to contact if there’s been a breach with personally identifiable information.

Colorado has paid out $2.5 billion in unemployment benefits since March 29, but only $880.6 million was for regular unemployment funded by the state’s unemployment trust fund. About $277.5 million for gig workers and another $1.32 billion in $600 weekly benefits to any Coloradan who qualified for regular unemployment came from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package.


Colorado unemployment resources

This story was updated at 3 p.m. on June 19, 2020 with tips on preventing or reporting fraud.


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