LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – California has paid out billions of dollars in unemployment benefits to people who’ve been affected by COVID-19, and while many people out of work have had problems getting their fair share, CBSLA investigative reporter David Goldstein obtained inside information that calls into question some who are collecting who perhaps shouldn’t be.
Goldstein found someone with a 2007 date of birth collecting California unemployment insurance at the age of 13.
He also found a 91-year-old collecting unemployment, who must be in great shape, because in his paperwork he claimed to be an unemployed bricklayer and asked that his unemployment check be mailed to an address in Cleveland.
Goldstein found one person collecting California unemployment with an address in Detroit, another in Fort Myers, Fla., and even another in the Philippines.
“If you’re a scammer, that’s kind of the way to scam the system,” anti-fraud expert Jon Coss said.
It is not illegal to collect California unemployment if you’re now out of state as long as you were working in California. However, Coss says that should be a red flag for state investigators.
“Remember, to collect unemployment insurance you need to be able and available to work,” Coss said. “You also need to show you’re applying for other jobs. It’s unlikely in the Philippines that’s taking place, but I guess there could be an exception.”
California Employment Development Department sources who wanted to show taxpayer money is going to places it shouldn’t, shared computer screen shots of people collecting weekly unemployment insurance.
According to screenshots, the people claim to be unemployed as a direct result of COVID-19. However, CBSLA has no idea if these are stolen identification cards.
Goldstein also found some got paid even though they didn’t provide a driver’s license or the proper identification that’s needed.
Most of the suspicious cases have one thing in common: they all claim to be self-employed.
In the past, self-employed people weren’t eligible for California unemployment. But under pandemic unemployment assistance backed by the federal government, they now are, which makes it hard to verify wages.
One person claims to have made $123,000 a year as a self-employed barber. They provided no ID and a Detroit address. They collected the maximum of $1,050 a week, including the $600 federal stimulus.
“Those lack of driver’s license or state ID card should have been followed up almost immediately,” said William Kresse, an accounting professor at Governors State University in Illinois who specializes in studying fraud. He goes by the moniker “Professor Fraud.”
“The fact that they just let it go by as self-employed, without checking further seems rather negligent,” Kresse said.
The self-employed barber collected for weeks and weeks until payments were finally stopped.
Daryl Smith is one of many people who are getting multiple EDD letters sent to their house with names of people who don’t live there. He says he’s gotten 20 to 25 letters in the past few weeks.
“The first few weeks I would send them back through the mail person, I would write ‘does not live here’, just what any person would do, this is a mistake, send it back,” Smith said.
Goldstein ran the names with sources and found someone traced to Oklahoma collecting $450 a week since February. She claimed she was self-employed making $66,000 a year as an account manager. It’s unclear if it’s a case of stolen ID, but Smith worries.
”It’s discouraging, I’m hoping nothing happens to me and that the government doesn’t think I had a part to do with it, because I had nothing to do with it,” Smith said.
EDD says fraud attempts have increased during the pandemic. They say their investigative team is working closely with local, state and federal partners to expose, stop and hold offenders accountable. But with $77 billion of benefits already paid out, and more on the way, CBSLA’s sources say the state continues paying money to people who are gaming the system.
“It would be almost impossible for them to check today,” Coss said. “Maybe a few months from now, maybe six months from now. But if it’s a stolen identity, and I’m saying I’m unemployed, you’re never going to get that money back.”
After reports of fraud, EDD says it has beefed up security. The program that pays unemployment insurance to the self-employed is set to expire at the end of the year.