The state agency that administers unemployment benefits on Tuesday provided for the first time some details about how badly Massachusetts has been hit by fraud, saying it had verified that more than 58,000 claims were phony and recovered a total of $158 million as of June 20.
In May, the Baker administration revealed that a sophisticated international scam network had targeted the state’s unemployment agency, along with those in about a dozen other states, apparently trying to take advantage of the demands on those agencies due to unprecedented job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
That scam prompted the Department of Unemployment Assistance to interrupt weekly payments to some claimants and to block the initial filings of others as it investigated.
But the Baker administration refused to say how many people have been affected and what it was doing to fix the problem, even as hundreds of people complained to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office that they were being deprived of badly needed benefits.
In its e-mailed press release on Tuesday, the state did not say how many claims have been put on hold or blocked from being filed because a fraudster had already used stolen information to file in a claimant’s name.
Along with the one-page press release, the state provided two pieces of data, labeled as “verified fraudulent claims” (58,616) and “fraud recovered” ($158 million). The release contained no further explanation of those numbers or how they relate to each other. The data covered the period from early March, when the coronavirus outbreak became apparent in Massachusetts, to late June.
The press release says more than 1.6 million unemployment claims were filed from March 8 to June 30 and that about 62 percent of those claims are being paid or have been deemed eligible to be paid. Denials have been appealed in about 70,000 cases.
A DUA spokesman declined to be interviewed.
The release said the stolen personal information used in the scam had been previously obtained in “commercial data breaches” unrelated to the pandemic or unemployment insurance. “Criminal enterprises” used the information to file “large amounts of illegitimate unemployment claims,” the release said.
The state had previously said there was no breach at the unemployment agency.
Because the DUA is requiring additional identity verification, payment of some legitimate claims may be temporarily delayed, the release said.
“It is unfortunate that because of this criminal activity, people who really need our support may face delays in receiving the benefits they need,” said Rosalin Acosta, secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, which oversees the DUA.
Acosta’s statement said the DUA is working to ensure that those with “valid unemployment claims receive financial assistance during these difficult times.”
The DUA is working with the State Police, Department of Correction, and National Guard on an “identity verification effort,” the release said.
Anyone who believes a false unemployment claim has been filed in their name should file a report at mass.gov/unemployment-fraud or call the DUA customer service department at 877-626-6800, the release said.
The DUA has hired the professional services firm Ernst & Young to conduct a forensic accounting investigation into the fraud scheme, the release said.
Last month, Healey blasted the Baker administration for not sharing with the public more details about how many people were going weeks without benefits due to the scam.
“The Baker administration has given little information for people to understand what’s going on,” Healey said.
Healey said the fair labor hot line set up by her office for a range of labor-related topics has been dominated recently by calls about unemployment benefits.
The Globe has recently featured the stories of claimants whose benefits were abruptly cut off, either without explanation or due to a demand for additional identity verification, including Robert Green, 50, of Plymouth, an out-of-work artist.
The state began paying him $867 a week in April, but then halted payments and demanded verification of his identity. Green produced a picture of himself holding his driver’s license, as well as his passport, tax documents, and birth certificate. For good measure, he threw in his state gun permit.
In late June, after following the DUA’s guidelines, Green was told that wasn’t good enough and was stripped of his benefits and told to repay the $6,000 he had already received.
When he first applied in April, before the fraud attack, the DUA required only a driver’s license.
After that Globe story appeared, Green’s benefits were resumed.
It is not clear from the DUA press release how many others have had their benefits similarly cut off, or how many are being blocked from filing.
Other states have previously provided details on the dimensions of the scam, while imposing new restrictions they acknowledge have slowed down payments.
In Washington state, for example, officials have said they began reviewing 190,000 claims for suspicious activity, of which half have now been resolved, with the state clawing back more than $300 million in erroneous payments. Still, fraudsters may have gotten away with $350 million, officials say.
Larry Edelman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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