RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)–The Virginia Employment Commission is currently reviewing hundreds of thousands of suspected fraud cases, according to VEC Commissioner Carrie Roth.
In an interview on Thursday, Roth said the backlog is the result of historic underfunding and understaffing at the start of the pandemic, coupled with a record number of weekly claims and a relaxed application process designed to get money out the door quickly during a sharp economic downturn.
Roth said, since March 2020, the state has distributed $1.6 billion in known and potentially fraudulent claims. She said that accounts for roughly 10 percent of all payments.
Currently, Roth said the VEC is in the process of reviewing 99,376 unpaid and 180,261 paid potentially fraudulent claims.
“We want people to know that only the individuals who have received benefits that they have earned are the folks that we want to pay. Anybody else, we’re coming after you,” Roth said.
Alicia Hanrahan, who says she was a victim of fraud, has yet to see results.
Hanrahan received a letter from the VEC in December that someone had tampered with her bank account information, which she reported to the agency as fraud that same month and later on to her local sheriff’s department. She later received another letter saying she would have to pay taxes on $756 in benefits that were apparently paid out before the issue was flagged in connection with a job that she was still working during that time.
Hanrahan said customer services representatives at the VEC repeatedly failed to give her guidance and refused to give her the information she needed to remedy the problem.
“Nobody could give me any information. Nobody was helping me out and I honestly felt like nobody cared,” Hanrahan said.
More than seven months later, Hanrahan is now newly unemployed and her case remains under review.
“Now I literally don’t have a job. I’m a single mother and I do need unemployment and I’m being told I can’t get it because of this fraud case that should’ve been cleared up a long time ago,” Hanrahan said.
“Sit and wait, that is what I’m being told. That’s crazy to me, that’s crazy. How many people are sitting in their house waiting for unemployment because of a fraud case who can’t pay their rent now,” Hanrahan continued.
Roth said, since taking over in January, they have successfully recovered roughly $40 million in wrongful payments with more than $60 million remaining. She said that’s in connection to 17,401 cases of confirmed fraud.
While employers normally have to review unemployment claims before benefits are approved, Roth said that step was waived during the pandemic to expedite the process. She said that could explain how someone like Hanrahan could have benefits paid out under their name while they’re actively employed.
“They were taking it for their word that the individual was the individual who had been employed. That practice is no longer in existence and created a huge problem,” Roth said.
Under a new state law, employers must file separation reports electronically, which should improve the efficiency and the accuracy of the system, according to Roth.
Another bill, which takes effect July 1, aims to put more guardrails on the VEC, improve communication between state agencies and crack down on fraud.
Roth said basic cases of identity theft can be resolved in under an hour but she couldn’t give a timeline for how long someone like Hanrahan should expect to wait.
“It’s going to depend on what the case is and the complexity of the case on how quickly we can move through it, but I will tell you it is our hyper-focus and our phase two of this backlog removal is on this potential fraud and fraud,” Roth said. “It’s not easy, it is challenging work. But again, we have added additional resources to amplify the work to try to get these resolved quicker.”
Note: The television version of this story said there were roughly 190,000 paid potentially fraudulent claims, as cited by Roth in an interview. Governor Glenn Youngkin’s office later confirmed the correct number, 180,261.