Much-needed unemployment benefits still on hold as state’s fraud investigation continues

Much-needed unemployment benefits still on hold as state’s fraud investigation continues

BOSTON — In May, 25 Investigates reported that Massachusetts was one of several state’s targeted in a nationwide fraud scheme involving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), aid for individuals who don’t qualify for traditional benefits.

Now, viewers tell 25 Investigates their accounts were frozen following that disclosure and many weeks later they are running out of money and patience.

“I’m about to be evicted from my home,” said Derrick Albert, a DJ from Allson who contacted us after weeks of trying unsuccessfully to get answers about his claim from the Department of Unemployment Assistance. “This is like a job. It’s an eight hour day. You get up in the morning, you call them till five o’clock and still, you don’t get anything done.”

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When the state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance announced the fraud it said it would temporarily pause PUA payments while working to verify claims.

Viewers we spoke say DUA is not only not giving them answers, but the agency is now demanding repayment of funds paid out prior to the verification process.

“I haven’t heard anything. There’s no letters in my PUA. I check every single day,” said April Ayers, who lost her job and income when day cares were forced to shut down in March. “It’s disheartening looking at a debt on that. I think it’s $5,000. But if I was stealing money from the state, why would I be filing every week at this point? Why would I be fighting this and calling and trying to resend my info?”

“I spent hours on the phone on hold, only to be disconnected,” said Joe DeMarco, a self-employed painted from Mansfield. “I went from pending status to denied status because they didn’t look at my IDs. And now I owe the government $5,202.”

DeMarco said the state suddenly cut off his weekly benefits in early May, stating his account needed further verification.

“I paid my taxes every year for 37 years and this is the only time I ever needed help,” said DeMarco. “I can appreciate the fact that they’re diligent about fraudulent claims. I don’t want my country getting ripped off any more than it already is. But the way they’re doing it is just, it’s terrible.”

25 Investigates contacted DUA with specific questions related to the problems our viewers are having. Though the agency did not directly address our questions, a spokesman said in a statement:

“The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) continues to partner with state and federal law enforcement agencies on the investigatory and prevention responses necessary to combat this national unemployment fraud scheme. DUA can assure that there is no evidence of a state data breach and protecting claimants’ information is our top priority. DUA will provide additional details about the scope and impact of the national unemployment fraud scheme as it relates to the Commonwealth as soon as they are available. All suspected fraudulent unemployment claims should be reported at mass.gov/unemployment-fraud. Those claimants who believe this scheme may have affected the status of their valid unemployment insurance claim should contact the DUA customer service department at 877-626-6800.”

“This should be the number one priority in government right now,” said Greg Sullivan, a former state inspector general and the research director at The Pioneer Institute, a government watchdog group.

“If this was the private sector this would be fixed. And it should be fixed. The system is so overstretched right now in the in the agency is so concerned about fraudulent claims that it’s just gummed everything up. And it’s a nightmare.”

A nightmare that 25 Investigates learned the state was warned about.

In an April report by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General states were alerted that the PUA system was vulnerable. “[T]he risk of fraud and improper payments is even higher under PUA because claimants can self-certify their UI qualifications,” according to page 8 of the report.

Governor Charlie Baker was asked about the PUA delays on Monday. He defended the state’s response.

“It’s very important to us that people get the money,” said Baker. “They’re entitled to but it’s also very important to us that they, in fact, be the people they that their application says they are.”

DUA did not offer a timeline for when the verification process might conclude or how long it’s taking for claims to be reviewed.