OLYMPIA, Wash. — State unemployment officials said Thursday they have recovered $300 million in stolen money that was diverted by scammers from jobless workers in dire need of unemployment aid benefits.
Speaking during an online briefing about the agency's efforts to dispense aid to Washington's state's unemployed workers, Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine said the agency expects to receive $50 million today as part of its recovery efforts.
"I have some very good news about what we've been able to recover," she said, adding that the effort to reclaim the money involved a "strong collaboration with federal law enforcement, our banks and financial institutions across the United States."
About two weeks ago, the agency suspended unemployment benefits payments for up to two days because of a rise in the number of fraudulent claims for payment.
But some unemployed people said they are still waiting for benefits for a suspension that has stretched beyond two days.
"What about those (of us who) haven’t seen our money because of this?" said Jennifer Schallmann, who is currently unemployed and waiting for her benefits. "Two weeks ago, they stopped paying us. They said it would be two days (and) it has been 14 days."
She and other unemployed residents have been caught up in the fraud, that included a scam where criminals, many of them out of state, used stolen information from Washington state residents and third-parties in order to file for unemployment benefits.
Criminals seeking to capitalize on a flood of legitimate unemployment claims are sneaking in fraudulent ones by using stolen personal identifying information.
Last week, state officials officials hinted at the scope of the damage done: hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in fake claims. Much of it apparently went to a West African fraud ring using identities stolen in prior data breaches, such as the massive 2017 Equifax breach.
Other states have been victims as well and they, along with federal authorities, are trying to claw back as much money as possible. States have also moved to block hundreds of millions more from being paid out, but Washington state's experience is nevertheless a cautionary tale.
"Our intel says Washington was the first state they went after, but we are seeing the number of states being attacked expand day by day," said Patrick Peterson, chief executive of the California cyber security firm Agari, which has monitored the Nigerian fraud group, dubbed Scattered Canary.
On Thursday, LeVine said more than 807,000 people have received unemployment benefit that amounts to $4.7 billion.
ESD officials also said 55,000 applicants were "bulk cleared" Wednesday night, meaning their requests had been snared by state filters but their requests for benefits have since been approved for payouts. Many of those applicants were asked to provide additional information to validate their applications.
"They haven't cleared mine yet," said Susie Thompson, an unemployed tow truck dispatcher in Snoqualmie who has requested unemployment benefits. "I logged on this morning and it still says pending. I can't plan to pay my bills or anything like that."
Stephan Crawford, who lost his transport driving job nearly 11 weeks ago, is demanding answers.
"When are we going to get an official date of when we are going to get paid?"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.