MACON – A new statewide, interagency task force focused on combatting unemployment insurance (UI) benefit fraud in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is supporting investigating agencies and encouraging citizens to report suspected UI fraud.
The Georgia Unemployment Insurance Fraud Task Force’s mission is to combat fraud schemes targeting the UI benefits program, which is funded by both the federal and the state governments and is administered by the Georgia Department of Labor. In response to the devastating negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed into law in March 2020. Among many benefits for citizens and businesses, the CARES Act includes a provision of temporary benefits for individuals who have exhausted their entitlement to regular unemployment compensation, as well as coverage for individuals who are not eligible for regular unemployment compensation, are self-employed or have limited recent work history.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, fraudsters have been perpetrating numerous lucrative UI fraud schemes at a significant rate. State and local law enforcement agencies are at the forefront in uncovering these schemes. The Georgia UI Fraud Task Force supports these agencies by providing assistance with evidence collection, offering guidance investigating complex fraud schemes, and referring cases for federal prosecution, among other needs. Representatives from agencies including the Georgia Department of Labor, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia’s Office of the Attorney General, the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, Homeland Security Investigations, IRS — Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Social Security Administration — Office of the Inspector General and all three of Georgia’s U.S. Attorney’s Offices serve on Georgia’s UI Fraud Task Force.
“The sole purpose for unemployment insurance is to support people suffering during this unprecedented time in our nation’s history,” U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia Charlie Peeler said in a news release. “It is unconscionable that individuals are corrupting the unemployment insurance system by essentially stealing benefits from our neighbors who are most in need at this time. My hope is that this task force will support law enforcement’s ongoing efforts to quickly identify scammers and bring them to justice, while protecting the integrity of the unemployment benefit system.”
“Every dime of taxpayer money diverted into the pockets of scam artists is less money available to help citizens who truly need assistance during difficult times,” Bobby L. Christine, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said. “We’re confident that with the vigilance of our law enforcement partners, we will identify and shut down those who would steal from these programs.”
“Unemployment insurance provides a lifeline to many Americans facing economic hardships and job losses,” Byung J. “BJay” Pak, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said. “This type of fraud victimizes not only the intended recipients, but also the employers who pay into the program. Through our partnerships, these criminals will be extradited and prosecuted.”
“We place a huge emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the unemployment insurance program and welcome the support of law enforcement agencies across the state to assist in identifying and prosecuting those committing fraud,” Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. “These criminals are not only harming those they are taking benefits from, but are also slowing down the process for the many Georgians depending on payments to make ends meet during this pandemic.”
“At a time when many American citizens have lost their jobs, or are temporarily out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is disheartening to think that anyone would fraudulently take advantage of the government funds they deserve,” Chris Hacker, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta, said. “We will fight this criminal behavior, along with our many partners in law enforcement, to stop anyone who attempts to profit off the backs of those in need.”
“So many Georgians have suffered hardships due to unemployment since the start of the pandemic,” GBI Director Vic Reynolds said. “The CARES Act was passed to provide relief; however, fraudsters have used this opportunity to steal from the government. The GBI is a proud member of this Task Force and will work diligently to ensure that those who choose to abuse these benefits are investigated and prosecuted.”
“This task force will truly prove that crime doesn’t pay,” Katrina W. Berger, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) operations in Georgia and Alabama, said. “HSI Atlanta and its partners are committed to hunting down these criminals that are stealing the resources and benefits that have been set aside to help people in our communities.”
Georgians are encouraged to be vigilant, as fraudsters often make use of unsuspecting victims’ bank accounts and log-ins to funnel illegally obtained unemployment payments. The Georgia UI Fraud Task Force advises the public to exercise caution when receiving emails promising “easy money” or unsolicited online requests to open personal bank accounts and share those account numbers online. Elders and prior victims of identity theft or email compromise are especially vulnerable targets of these schemes.