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Fraudulent unemployment claims continue in Colorado, but 30-50% were stopped “at the front door”

New unemployment claims for the first time last week dropped below the highest point of the Great Recession.

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As some Coloradans report that they’ve received multiple unemployment benefits debit cards in the mail even though they hadn’t made a jobless claim, the state said it’s ramped up efforts to combat identity theft and thwart fraudulent activity that has bombarded unemployment offices nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic.

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“Based on a number of characteristics, which I’m not going to elaborate on but that have been designed in house as well as leveraged from state partners and national law enforcement, 30% to 50% of those are being stopped to the front door — before they are filed,” said Jeff Fitzgerald, the state Department of Labor and Employment’s unemployment insurance director.  “This is not unusual, with regards to the activity nationally. If anything, other states are getting more.”

The state expanded its fraud investigation unit and tapped into the Suspicious Actor Repository, a national database where state workforce agencies share suspicious candidates. An upgrade to the system this week allows new claims to be checked quickly against the database to see if the claimant filed in other states or is suspected of fraud. About 10,000 claims were adjusted in June and July after they were deemed fraudulent.

But there are other reasons why fraud should be on the decline. Since the $600 weekly federal benefit ended July 25, there’s less incentive to make one claim that could be backdated to February and get thousands of dollars in one fell swoop. There’s also been a decline in the number of folks filing for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which was the program targeted by ID thieves 

New claims by this group of self-employed workers dropped 22% in a week to 7,585 for the week ended Aug. 1.

New claims for regular unemployment also dropped to their lowest since the pandemic began in mid-March. At 7,138 new claims, that’s the first time it’s below the highest point of the Great Recession, according to Ryan Gedney, the Department of Labor’s senior economist. Back in 2009 and 2010, the average number of initial regular unemployment claims was 4,800.

But this is far from over, he added. About 311,000 Coloradans still are receiving some sort of weekly unemployment benefit.

“While the worst is over, I think there’s still a long way to go before we get back to kind of a normal situation of claims activity,” Gedney said.

The state Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, which had $1.1 billion before the pandemic, is down to $75 million to $100 million and is expected to run out of money this month. The state has already made a request to borrow federal funds to continue paying unemployment benefits, Gedney said.

About $85 million was paid out last week from the state’s unemployment fund, while an additional $170 million came from federal dollars. Since the pandemic began, the state has overseen $4.28 billion in unemployment payments. Workers who have used up their benefits may qualify for an extra 13 weeks of pay from the federal government called the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. So far, the state has paid out $8.8 million in PEUC.

While the temporary $600 weekly benefit has ended, Congress continues to work on an alternative that when in place, likely will be retroactive. However, for now, that means Coloradans who relied on that extra weekly payment are now only getting their regular benefit, which is typically 55% of their past income. 

Unemployed workers saw the introduction of a more personalized virtual agent on Thursday. Anyone going to the state’s unemployment site at coloradoui.gov will see a window pop-up on screen asking if the visitor needs help. While the feature, which is powered by Google, had helped answer generic questions in the past, it now has the ability to respond to more specific questions since it can look up a claimant’s file. 

The virtual agents also have helped offload incoming requests for help from people dialing into the call center. Now, all calls into the unemployment line are redirected to the virtual agents. Some 350,000 sessions have been conducted since the tool debuted on July 1. Of those, 13% had to schedule a call back with a human agent. Those call backs are now being scheduled for September.

But those workers should try the new and improved virtual agent to see if their issues can be resolved sooner, said Cher Haavind, the labor department’s deputy director. And if problems are resolved, she asked that those who have a call back scheduled cancel their appointment in order to let another person take that spot.

“There are no wait times. There are no busy signals. This is a fully automated system,” Haavind said. “As the data indicates, we’re seeing fewer requests for callbacks, which is allowing us to expand that capacity, adding Saturday. I would say overall the tool is performing at or better than expected and helping us meet the demand for information.”


Colorado unemployment resources

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