25 Investigates: Fraud bogging down Mass. unemployment system

WORCESTER, Mass. — Kathy Lioce was getting desperate.

The 55-year-old said she was down to her last 77 cents after the state paused payments on her unemployment claim last week.

“COVID has really taken a bite out of my life,” Lioce said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Lioce said she was forced to leave her job at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester for health reasons.

For weeks, she had received a $435 payment every Sunday through the Massachusetts Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

But her account—along with many others across the state—was recently placed on hold, the consequence of a new “identification verification” process from the Department of Unemployment Assistance.

“In order to ensure the integrity of the unemployment system, DUA is continuing to apply enhanced identity verification measures that may temporarily delay the payment timeframe for some unemployment claims in Massachusetts,” the agency said in a press release.

“When I asked him how long would the hold be, he said there’s no way we could even give a time estimate on when you’d be able to get a payment,” Lioce said.

A “large number of illegitimate unemployment claims” continue to flood the system, the DUA said, and it’s bogging down the system for legitimate claims.

More than 171,000 claims have been determined to be fraudulent, according to DUA statistics.

The DUA also recovered $242,220,594 in payments “found to be fraudulent,” according to the agency.

“Criminal enterprises in possession of stolen personal information from earlier, unrelated commercial data breaches continue to attempt to file large numbers of illegitimate unemployment claims through the Massachusetts unemployment system,” the agency said.

“A lot of [the fraud] is happening outside of Massachusetts and outside this country,” Attorney General Maura Healey said.

Healey said her office is working with the FBI to investigate thousands of fraudulent claims pouring into Massachusetts.

The Attorney General recently witnessed the fraud up close, when her own name appeared on a bogus letter.

“I myself received a letter saying I had applied for unemployment insurance benefits. That’s simply not the case. But I know it’s happened to a number of people around the state,” Healey said.

But Healey said the state needs to balance identification verification while still providing financial assistance to thousands who need it.

“We’ve talked to the DUA. They’ve got to find a way to continue to expedite and move through these things, that verification cannot be standing in the way of people getting their funding,” Healey said.

State Representative Michelle DuBois of Brockton said her office is helping dozens of people who either had their unemployment benefits turned off or have waited months to receive assistance.

“I would say that the bureaucratic process is not well oiled and it is really showing its stress right now,” DuBois said.

Quincy resident Virginia Dembrowski said she spent seven weeks calling and texting the DUA, trying to get her boyfriend’s claim approved through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program.

“They admittedly said in text messages to us that the PUA could not handle the calls. So you just get hung up on,” Dembrowski said.

Virginia provided 25 Investigates with 29 screengrabs of text messages showing her back and forth with state employees.

One of the workers texted, “Tier 2 is a much smaller department so when their phone que (sic) fills up, it disconnects new callers. I have to ask that you be persistent in trying to get through…It frustrates me knowing that so many people need their help and struggle to get it. I truly apologize.”

“You made the effort on your end to keep filing every week as you’re supposed to, keep looking for work even if it’s not in your industry and then wondering how you’re going to pay your bills,” Demobrowski said.

Lioce feels like she’s already been forgotten.

“What about all these people that have nowhere to go? Have no money coming? Who don’t have people to help them? What happens to us?” Lioce said.

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