25 Investigates

Mass. recovers $252 million from thousands of fraudulent unemployment claims

NORTH BROOKFIELD, Mass. — Brian Perkins still has the letter he received from the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance.

“Yeah, they sent me a whole bunch of stuff,” Perkins said.

The DUA mailed the 63-year-old computer designer a notice in November verifying the agency had received his unemployment claim.

But Perkins never lost his job and never filed for unemployment.

“It kind of feels like one is being robbed, to a certain extent,” Perkins said.

Perkins reported the fraud to North Brookfield police, but his story is part of a much larger problem impacting thousands across the state.

According to new data from the DUA, the state received almost 2.5 million claims for unemployment between Mar. 8, 2020, and Jan. 9, 2021.

Nearly 140,000 claims were found to be fraudulent, a DUA spokesperson said. The state was able to recover $252 million in payments made to those bogus claims.

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

When we spoke with Gens outside his Everett home earlier this month, his phone had been turned off and he was almost two months behind in rent.

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

25 Investigates first reported on this problem in October, when hundreds of state and city workers had fraudulent 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 the state.

Because of the widespread fraud, the 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.

“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 fraudulent 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 in December.

“My light bill is backed up. My gas bill is backed up. The cable is backed up,” Gina Elliott said.

The Dorchester mom said she and her husband had to wait almost two months for their unemployment checks.

“Trying to make sure I was able to feed my child, it was hard because I didn’t have any money coming in anymore,” Elliott said.

Many are turning to local Facebook groups, like “MA Unemployment Consultation” and “Unemployment Massachusetts Information and Help,” each with thousands of members sharing problems and asking questions.

“I am very sympathetic to those people, to not have money for food, rent, or if they have a car payment, being able to cover that. For those individuals, our hearts go out to them,” Perkins.

A DUA spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

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