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Jobless fraud leads to delays

Hold put on new PUA applicants for security measures

A resurgence of fraud claims for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that helps the self-employed has led the state Department of Labor & Industry to put a hold on dispensing money to new PUA applicants, pending confirmation of those applicants’ identities.

“Due to an alarming spike in suspicious applications for unemployment benefits through the (PUA) program, additional anti-fraud and identity verification measures will be put in place,” the department stated in a news release. “Payments for new applicants are being temporarily delayed.”

There will be no change for people who have already opened a PUA claim, according to Labor Secretary Jerry Oleksiak, speaking in a virtual news conference Monday.

For months, the department has been working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the state Attorney General’s Office and other law enforcement agencies to combat the PUA fraud, which has been widespread nationally, according to Oleksiak.

That crackdown led to a reduction in the number of applications to about 5,000 per day.

In late August, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office charged 33 people, including eight inmates, with PUA fraud.

But the PUA application number rocketed back to 20,000 Friday, with many from out of state, arousing suspicions and leading the department to consult the agencies and its third-party vendor, followed by the determination to impose the new protections, according to Oleksiak, Unemployment Benefits Compensation Policy Director Susan Dickinson and the news release.

The fraudsters have been stealing identities of individuals and using those to apply for the program, officials said.

It’s much easier to apply for PUA than for traditional unemployment compensation, Oleksiak said.

Some documentation is required, but there is self-certification involved, he said.

With PUA, applicants have been able to get paid for multiple weeks at once, based on “back-dating,” which under traditional unemployment, would involve departmental inquiries to verify claims, according to Dickinson.

Pennsylvania and other states have disabled the problematic PUA backdating “function,” Dickinson said.

There’s no “date certain” when the department will be able to begin paying new, legitimate PUA claims, Oleksiak said.

As soon as the new measures are in place, “we will let everyone know,” he said.

The hope is to get the verifications automated, according to Dickinson.

Oleksiak declined to specify the nature of the new verification measures, so as not to “tip our hand” to potential perpetrators, he said.

The department realizes that PUA is a “lifeline” for many people and that benefits are needed, Oleksiak said.

But the department has a “fiduciary responsibility” to ensure against the fraudulent use of taxpayer funds, he said.

The department has paid more than $5 billion to PUA claimants so far, according to the news release.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will not be providing states with more money for the Lost Wages Assistance program launched by President Donald Trump via executive order to replace the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, but Pennsylvania is still taking applications for LWA benefits — up to $300 a week, payable between the week ending Aug. 1 and the week ending Sept. 5, according to Oleksiak.

There is about half of the $2.8 billion allocated to Pennsylvania still left, according to Oleksiak. The money could be available for approximately another three months, according to Dickinson.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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