Fraud continues to bog down Mass. unemployment system

EVERETT, Mass. — Michael Gens was falling further behind with every week that passed.

He was broke. The phone company had turned off his cell. He was almost two months behind in rent.

“There’s nothing. It’s zero,” Gens said about his bank account.

Gens is a cook at Encore Boston Harbor. He was furloughed twice because of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to earn a paycheck since June.

He was receiving unemployment benefits from the state, but was told two days before Thanksgiving his payments were on hold.

“I got a notice saying my benefits were on hold due to a phishing scam and fraud. That was seven weeks ago,” Gens said.

25 Investigates first reported on this problem in October, when hundreds of state and city workers had bogus unemployment claims filed in their name.

In December, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said her office was working with the FBI to investigate thousands of claims, many of them phishing scams from outside Massachusetts.

Because of the widespread fraud, the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) was forced to go back and verify thousands of identities.

A “large number of illegitimate unemployment claims” continue to flood the system, the DUA said in December, and continues to bog down the system for legitimate claims.

“We’ve literally had no money the last three months. We’ve had to beg and borrow,” Schanell Hope-Jones said.

Hope-Jones said health concerns forced her to leave her job at a law firm in Springfield last summer. She said her husband lost his job in November.

She has waited 13 weeks to get assistance from the state.

“They’re trying to repossess my car. I’ve told them I’m waiting on unemployment and they don’t want to hear that. They want their money,” Hope-Jones said.

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

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 in December. 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.

She 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 in December.

Many are turning to local Facebook groups including MA Unemployment Consultation and Unemployment Massachusetts Information and Help. Each group has thousands of members sharing problems and asking questions.

After submitting all the proper photos and paperwork, Gens can’t understand why people like him had to wait so long.

“Why it’s taking so long to just check an ID to see I am a citizen, I am who I am. Just move on,” Gens said.

“Somebody needs to do something. I don’t think people can just keep waiting like this,” he said.

The DUA did not respond to requests for comment.