COLUMBUS — Fraudulent claims for unemployment insurance have skyrocketed during the pandemic, leading to legitimate claims to be delayed for approval.

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Kimberly Henderson said this week the department received 140,444 initial jobless claims for the week ending Feb. 6.

Of those, at least 44,000 were flagged by the department as possible fraud or are under review. She added that’s an increase of 194% over the previous week’s initial claims.

That roused the suspicion of the department.

“That will create delays in processing some of the legitimate claims that are in that mix,” Henderson said. “Our agency is deeply sorry the criminal actions of those hoping to benefit from this worldwide emergency has caused hardship and anxiety for honest people in the state of Ohio.”

She added the unemployment fraud is a national problem, citing cases in Kansas and California, and is not the result of any data breach within the state’s agency.

“Criminals are obtaining individuals identities from other sources, and using them to file fraudulent unemployment claims,” she added.

The problem has been increased through the unemployment assistance program set up to help those who have become jobless as a result of the pandemic.

“This is largely because of the way the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) program was designed,” Henderson said. “The (U.S.) Department of Labor urged states to allow recipients to self-certify their eligibility and their earnings history, this allowed payments to be issued quickly, but unfortunately it also opened a door for criminal activity.”

She added the most recently federal stimulus legislation proposed by President Joe Biden would institute new document requirements for the program in an effort to reduce fraudulent claims.

“It also imposes new limitations on back dating claims, and requires states to verify the identities of new PUA claimants,” Henderson said.

She said steps are being taken to address the problem, including offering two options for residents or businesses to report suspected fraudulent claims. This can be done online at unemployment.ohio.gov or a hotline, 833-658-0394.

The hotline is manned by 50 employees 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“To date, we have received more than 100,000 reports of identity theft from individuals who have used the report identity theft option on our website,” Henderson said.

She added steps are being taken to strengthen the identity verification program through the normal unemployment system, which has also been hit by fraud.

The most likely sign someone has become a victim of identity theft involving unemployment is to receive a 1099 tax form, which lists unemployment benefits that were not applied for or received.

Other indicators include receiving a letter asking for a PIN reset from the department, or a letter denying benefits. Employers may also be tipped off if they receive a form seeking information on separation from an employee that is actually still working there.

Whenever fraud is suspected, Henderson encouraged people to report it to the department using the online portal or the hotline.

Email comments to briank@northwestsignal.net

I started at the Northwest Signal in 1994 and became editor in 2004. I graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1994.

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