Governor Charlie Baker on Monday revealed that a very high percentage of claims filed last week for unemployment benefits failed to pass an initial screening, due to possible fraud.
Of 31,000 new claims, he said, only about 1,000 — a little over 3 percent — cleared the state’s screening. Baker made the remarks at a regularly scheduled news conference to discuss the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is a tremendous amount of bot-based fraud going on,” he said, referring to autonomous software programs that are able to interact online with systems and users.
Baker’s comments came after a reporter asked about complaints of delays in collecting legitimate unemployment benefits, and were apparently intended to help explain at least one reason for those delays.
In an e-mail, a Department of Unemployment Assistance spokesman clarified that the 31,000 claims Baker made reference to were filed over the weekend of Nov. 14-15, not for a full week. It was not immediately clear how that number of possibly fraudulent claims compares to earlier weeks — whether the numbers cited by Baker represent a sudden spike or a continuation, for example — or how much fraud has been confirmed.
It was also unclear how much the ongoing fraudulent claims may affect estimates of the state’s unemployment rate.
Baker said that anyone with a legitimate claim who is having trouble accessing benefits should reach out to the DUA and to the governor’s office of constituent services.
“Leave a message on our voice mail and we’ll follow up,” he said. (The constituent services telephone number is 617-725-4005.)
The Baker administration has long acknowledged fraud as a major problem, though it has provided scant details. In July, the unemployment agency said it had verified that more than 58,000 claims were phony and that it had recovered $158 million.
A month earlier, the administration had blamed a sophisticated international scam network for targeting the state’s unemployment agency, along with those in about a dozen other states. The fraudsters apparently were trying to take advantage of the demands on those agencies due to unprecedented job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scam prompted the DUA at that time to interrupt weekly payments to some claimants and to block the initial filings of others as it investigated. As a result, the agency implemented time-consuming measures to verify users’ identities.
On Monday, Baker cited the high rate of claims screened out last week as an example of how bad things have gotten and blamed the preponderance of phony claims for diverting some attention from the processing of legitimate claims.
“It creates a time . . . issue for people who are appropriately and legally entitled to those benefits with respect to when they actually move the system forward on their behalf,” he said.
Baker emphasized the importance of vetting claims, citing federal regulations to make sure officials aren’t “paying out money to people who don’t exist or don’t qualify or aren’t out of work, which has been a problem since this whole thing began last spring.”
Baker also mentioned that the substantial number of claims suspected of being fraudulent has hampered the state’s ability to get an accurate read on the true level of employment, as states like Massachusetts track and release weekly claims data as an important indicator of the health of the economy.
“It’s very difficult to get an accurate count with all this bot-based activity going on, how many claims are actually being filed each week,” he said.
Baker also gave another example of how fraudsters were gumming up the works.
“Some of these fraudsters are actually paying people to call unemployment offices around the country and advocate for benefits, pretending to be someone they are not, and who is not in fact unemployed,” he said.
Anyone who believes they may have had a false unemployment claim filed using their identity is urged to use the DUA’s fraud contact form at mass.gov/unemployment-fraud or to call the agency’s customer service department at 877-626-6800.