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Colorado unemployment office plans to use biometric ID verification to battle fraud

Fraud prevention measures have held up new federal jobless benefits to those on pandemic unemployment. “We are walking a tightrope here,” said Joe Barela, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s executive director.

  • Credibility:

A new identity verification system using biometrics is being installed by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to address the monthslong issues with pandemic unemployment fraud.

The service, called ID.me, is used — or will be used — by 27 other state unemployment departments to make sure people filing for unemployment are who they say they are, Joe Barela, the labor department’s executive director, said in a call with reporters on Thursday.

“We will release this identification process for them to start clearing (their) claims so that if they are actually in fact a real person, we can begin paying their claim,” Barela said.

It’s part of a federal edict to have a verification process by Jan. 27 to vet users on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. The federally funded PUA was made available last spring to self-employed and gig workers, but it was also the most heavily hit by criminals using stolen IDs to file for benefits. 

Barela said ID.me will be used to help people whose legitimate unemployment claims have been flagged as fraud for weeks and months. They will be among the first to get access to verify their identities using facial recognition to get their jobless claims paid, finally. All new claims for unemployment will have to go through ID.me or “result in the claim being held.” People who are required to go through the process should receive a link to begin the verification process.

Get a ReliaCard from U.S. Bank in the mail? If you didn’t apply for unemployment benefits, it’s likely a fraudulent claim. Protect your ID by filing a fraud report form with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment at cdle.colorado.gov/fraud-prevention. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

According to the Virginia-based company’s site, its technology checks physical IDs, the user’s mobile network operator and does other fraud and compliance checks. It’s used by more than 22 million people and 350 partners, including federal and state agencies, health care organizations and financial institutions. 

An ID.me company spokesman clarified Friday that its technology is currently being used in 14 states, while others are under contract but have not started.

But ID.me takes time to implement and test and officials put the launch date within “the next one to two weeks, if not sooner.” And that’s impacting the rollout of new 11-weeks of federal benefits to those who’ve exhausted regular state employment or are on PUA. 

The labor department also is still programming its new computer system to pay out the extra $300 in federal benefits and gave no launch date as to when payments will begin. 

“I know there are a lot of people out there worried about when are they going to receive their payments,” said Phil Spesshardt, the state labor department’s benefits services manager. “For many of those individuals, that is now three weeks. … And it’ll be a little bit more to wait.”

But you have to remember, he added, Congress waited until the last week of the older relief plan, the CARES Act, to pass a new plan. President Donald Trump didn’t sign it into law until a day after the old program ended, and the U.S. Department of Labor had to analyze it before providing guidance to the states, which came Jan. 8.

“So again, understanding that individuals have been waiting three weeks or longer for payment, we have had all that information to begin processing and developing a new system for six days now,” he said.

State revises new claims due to fraud

Fraud has surged again in recent weeks, causing the labor department to revise past weekly new claim numbers. No one has been able to file a new PUA claim since Christmas because that federal program expired on Dec. 26. But within the new claims for regular unemployment, the state subtracted 31,237 from the past three weeks that are now deemed fraudulent.

The adjustments for new weekly claims for those on regular unemployment were:  

  • Week ended Dec. 19th: 18,121, down from 24,397
  • Week ended Dec. 26th: 16,660, down from 25,360
  • Week ended Jan. 2: 25,178, down from 41,439

And there are many people with claims on fraud holds. State officials said through anti-fraud efforts since early summer, 800,000 PUA accounts were flagged, plus another 150,000 accounts within the state regular unemployment system. While $10 million has been paid to claims now deemed fraudulent, $7 billion was prevented from leaving state coffers.

“It’s important to note that we are walking a tightrope here,” Barela said. “We know that we want to get benefits out as quickly as possible to those who need unemployment insurance at this time. But we also want to put systems in place that protect our funds or benefits from going out the door to fraudulent claims.”

Since the middle of March, nearly 1 million people have filed new claims, and the state labor department has paid out $6.9 billion in regular and federal unemployment benefits.

As of Jan. 2, there were 308,015 people continuing to make a weekly request for benefits. Of those, 146,723 were on regular unemployment, which is up from 109,373 the week before. The rest were receiving federal benefits.

Another 14,123 new claims were filed for the week ending Jan. 9. That number was down from 25,178 new claims in the prior week. Ryan Gedney, the labor department’s senior economist, said he didn’t view that as any economic indicator at all. Rather, the Department of Labor had asked a half-million people to request payment by Jan. 3 for a future week since the system was getting shut down for a massive computer upgrade.

Unemployment system upgraded 

The new system went live on Jan. 10, but only for those on regular unemployment who needed to request their weekly payment. There is now one computer system to handle regular claims and pandemic claims. State officials hope this will speed up the process of getting accounts processed and paid.

As of Wednesday, 185,000 people had logged into their accounts since the Sunday upgrade; about 80,000 requested a payment and $18 million has been paid. One of the unemployment call centers received more than 33,000 calls during the same period, with 36,000 people helped through callbacks, said Barela, adding that users can provide feedback on unresolved issues.

Because of the new fraud controls, some folks who’ve been collecting regular unemployment for months could now have a fraud hold, also known as an “integrity” issue. Those folks will have to be re-verified through the new ID.me tool, which isn’t ready yet. 

“We do think the system is running as planned,” Barela said. “We’ve had a few glitches that we’ve been able to correct them.”

This story was updated on Jan. 15, 2021 with additional details from ID.me, which clarified that its technology is currently being used in 14 states with other states under contract. Not all ID.me features available to customers will be used in Colorado.


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