California is slowly clawing back some of the estimated $20 billion in unemployment money stolen by domestic and international criminals that had been earmarked for jobless relief during the pandemic, NPR reports. It is, by far, the largest reported amount of pandemic related fraud in any state. Critics say the California money recovery effort remains feeble, with too few people held to account, and that the real fraud figure is likely far higher. "It's too late and too little, and even the systems they presently have can still be defrauded," says Jim Patterson, a Republican assemblyman and vice chair of the state's Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review. "That's not good enough." Nationally, the total amount of unemployment insurance fraud is staggering. The U.S. Department of Labor Inspector General told Congress that "at least $163 billion in pandemic UI benefits could have been paid improperly, with a significant portion attributable to fraud."
The emphasis from federal and state officials was on pushing money out fast — $5 trillion in all to help ease the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. That speed meant many claims weren't verified. In California alone, fraudsters using stolen social security numbers and stolen or made up names made off with what state officials conservatively estimate is $20 billion. That's about eleven percent of the $177 billion in jobless benefits paid out for COVID-19 relief. I wasn't hard: Someone claiming to be U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein got paid. There was a John Doe and even a Mr. Poopy Pants. They all got money. "The key to the kingdom for unemployment insurance fraud benefits was a Social Security number," says McGregor Scott, a former U.S. Attorney in Eastern California.