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Washington's unemployment insurance lost over $100 million to a Nigerian scam

Washington State was defrauded of hundreds of millions of dollars from the State Unemployment fund when officials fell for a Nigerian fraud scheme.
Ari Hoffman Seattle, WA

On Thursday, Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the state Employment Security Department (ESD), acknowledged the loss of "hundreds of millions of dollars" to an international fraud scheme that crippled the state’s unemployment insurance system. Levine did not specify an exact figure of the losses.

In April, Governor Jay Inslee and LeVine, a 2018 Inslee appointee, touted that they were relaxing the vetting of unemployment claims so as to get money to recipients as quickly as possible. ESD officials acknowledged that, because of the elimination of the "waiting week" between the time a claim is filed and the time the benefit is paid, the agency wasn't always able to get verification from employers about a claim before payment was made.

ESD officials claim that fraudsters targeted Washington because it was among the first states to begin paying out new benefits available under the federal stimulus bill. The legislation increased those benefits available under existing state unemployment insurance systems, including issuing an extra $600 per week.

It is presumed that the group of schemers likely used personal information about Washingtonian residents from previous consumer-data breaches. This writer alone has been contacted by close to a dozen people who discovered phony claims had been filed using their Social Security numbers and personal information.

According to the Seattle Times: "…among the criminal groups implicated in the fraud is a Nigerian organization known as Scattered Canary, according to a report released this week by Agari, a California-based cybersecurity firm that has tracked the African organization's activities. The group has been running scams for more than a decade, working to steal Social Security payments, student aid and disaster relief funds, among other targets, the report said."

This has let to an explosion on social media of pundits mocking government officials for falling for the well known email scam of inheriting money from a Nigerian prince.

On May 14, Washington state officials said they were stopping unemployment payments for two days while they attempted to block an onslaught of fraudulent claims. By that time, the fraud payouts were estimated by ESD officials to be approximately $1.6 million.

On May 16, the Tax Foundation released a map showing Washington state having the highest unemployment compensation claims in the US as a percentage of the civilian workforce.

Some questioned the data, noting that tech giants headquartered in Washington and some of the states largest employers have not had mass layoff or furloughs. It is not currently known exactly how many fraudulent claims were filed or an exact number of how much money was defrauded from Washington State.

Many unemployed Washingtonians have lamented having not received any payments since the start of the shutdown in Washington State over 9 weeks ago. Unemployment filers have reported weeks of frustrating attempts to contact the agency with emails going unreturned and phone calls going unanswered. During that time, the fraudulent claims were wracking up, and being paid out.

Governor Jay Inslee cancelled a scheduled Thursday morning press conference which was slated to announce the rolling back restriction on religious organizations in the state. Pundits speculated that something disastrous was about to be revealed, noting that Inslee never misses an opportunity to be on camera. The governor has been frequently criticized for not taking follow up questions during press conferences and casually dismissing bombshell revelations such as those discovered this week by the Freedom Foundation that coronavirus deaths in Washington have been inflated by as much as 13 percent by deaths from other causes being categorized as coronavirus deaths, even including even gun shots.

The governor dismissed the claim earlier in the week as "dangerous," "disgusting" and "malarkey." He further accused the Freedom Foundation of "…fanning these conspiracy claims from the planet Pluto" and not caring about the lives lost to COVID-19. Meanwhile, officials at the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) confirmed Thursday that, as the Freedom Foundation reported on Monday, the state is counting in its COVID-19 death total the deaths of persons who tested positive for the virus but died from other causes.

Religious organizations eager to return to prayer services and programs were left wondering why the restriction relaxation plan was not announced as promised in the form of an announcement or release from a different official. Religious leaders and congregants speculated that the fraud revelations would delay the rollback of regulations because the governor did not want to face the inevitable questions regarding the fraud and over reporting scandals.

Religious practitioners in Washington are growing increasingly frustrated with the Governor, as residents are allowed to go to parks and stores so long as they adhere to social distancing norms, while doing the same for prayer in church, synagogue and mosque parking lots is forbidden and only drive in services are permitted.

In light of the fraud revelations, officials acknowledged that additional delays in benefit payments to legitimate claimants are likely as the ESD subjects all claims to more scrutiny.

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Ari Hoffman
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