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$16M in Hawaii unemployment benefits possibly lost to fraud

                                Volunteers process unemployment claims at the Hawaii Convention Center. Nearly $16 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits may have been lost to fraud and identity theft.
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Volunteers process unemployment claims at the Hawaii Convention Center. Nearly $16 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits may have been lost to fraud and identity theft.

Nearly $16 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits in Hawaii may have been lost to fraud and identity theft, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported today.

The more than $15.8 million lost to fraud amounts to about 4% of the total PUA benefits distributed in the state. The DLIR has paid out over $387 million via legitimate claims.

The department also reported blocking more than $76.5 million in possibly fraudulent PUA claims.

PUA is a provision of the federal coronavirus relief act designed by Congress to assist Americans not eligible for regular unemployment insurance claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those who qualify for PUA benefits include workers who are self-employed, independent contractors and freelancers.

The U.S. Department of Labor inspector general and the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General are investigating the “bad actors” involved in the fraudulent claims, but DLIR Deputy Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio said not much is known about those committing the crimes.

“What we do know, I would not like to disclose, but we don’t know much, to tell you the truth,” she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The Star-Advertiser’s Kokua Line reported May 31 that Hawaii’s unemployment office was apparently being targeted by Scattered Canary, a Nigerian cybercrime ring that has stolen millions of dollars from unemployment funds around the country. Hawaii’s labor department was informed May 14 by the U.S. Secret Service of potential fraud.

Perreira-Eustaquio shared one preventative measure being used to fight identity theft.

It involves the labor department sending letters to verify the identity of those who have applied for PUA benefits. Potential victims who did not apply but received the verification letter have to inform the appropriate entities of the fraud so the labor department can stop processing their claims.

“In the letter it states that if they weren’t the individual to file the claim, to take measures to notify different businesses that they were a victim of fraud,” she said. “There’s some websites they can go to to file that fraudulent claim.”

The labor department said that since June 4, nearly 6,000 people have reported themselves as victims of identity theft after receiving a letter regarding PUA eligibility.

Names, birthdays, social security numbers and addresses may have been stolen from the victims.

PUA applications also require a driver’s license, phone number and a wage record such as a W-2 form.

Perreira-Eustaquio admitted that the measure only works if the victim’s listed address is correct. She also said an older version of the verification letter may have not included a website to file a fraudulent claim.

Further, it might not be possible to retrieve money if it has already been withdrawn from a bank account.

“When a direct deposit is made, if we are notified in time that someone has been a victim of fraud, we’ll try to retrieve those amounts back from the bank,” Perreira-Eustaquio said.

Krishna Jayaram, special assistant to the AG, said the Department of the AG has been concerned about scams and fraud since COVID-19 hit Hawaii. He said in an email that the PUA fraud cases “highlight a need to be vigilant.”

Potential victims can report fraud by visiting pua.hawaii.gov.

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