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Sept. 20, 2021

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Fraud cases skyrocketed in Washington in 2020, say reports

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TACOMA — A statewide crime report for 2020 showed the effect that last year’s swarm of fraudulent unemployment claims had on Washington’s overall crime statistics.

Incidents of fraud were up 131.3 percent, for a total of 59,134 fraud offenses, compared with 25,562 fraud offenses in 2019, according to the Crime in Washington 2020 Annual Report, presented by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

According to the report, the state’s “significant” rise in fraud activity was because of fraudulent unemployment claims filed under the guise of pandemic-related job loss.

Washington was one of several states targeted by imposter fraud.

Nick Demerice, media representative for the Employment Security Department, told The News Tribune via email on July 13 that “the confirmed and probable fraud was $643 million impacting around 50,000 claimants.”

The state so far has recovered $370 million, and federal prosecutors have indicted two Nigerian men in the fraud case.

The total loss has been challenged previously by the state Auditor’s Office. In a report issued in April, the office noted that the total loss could have amounted to more than $1 billion.

ESD has called that a “gross mischaracterization” of the possible loss.

“It must be made clear that, although there are aspects of the Accountability Audit the Department agrees with, there are also deep flaws, numerous pieces of incorrect information and overall, the characterization of the total amount of possible imposter fraud paid in 2020 is false,” it said in a response included with the report.

An initial report from the Auditor’s Office in December blamed the department’s fast-tracking of processing claims, saying it made the state vulnerable to the fraudulent claims.

The auditor’s April report supported that finding.

“The reduced verification requirements for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits may have been the largest contributing factor in allowing each type of misappropriation to occur,” according to the auditor’s April report.

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