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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Criminals may have stolen as much as half of the unemployment benefits the U.S. has been pumping out over the past year, some experts say.

Why it matters: Unemployment fraud during the pandemic could easily reach $400 billion, according to some estimates, and the bulk of the money likely ended in the hands of foreign crime syndicates — making this not just theft, but a matter of national security.

Catch up quick: When the pandemic hit, states weren't prepared for the unprecedented wave of unemployment claims they were about to face.

  • They all knew fraud was inevitable, but decided getting the money out to people who desperately needed it was more important than laboriously making sure all of them were genuine.

By the numbers: Blake Hall, CEO of ID.me, a service that tries to prevent this kind of fraud, tells Axios that America has lost more than $400 billion to fraudulent claims. As much as 50% of all unemployment monies might have been stolen, he says.

  • Haywood Talcove, the CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions, estimates that at least 70% of the money stolen by impostors ultimately left the country, much of it ending up in the hands of criminal syndicates in China, Nigeria, Russia and elsewhere.
  • "These groups are definitely backed by the state," Talcove tells Axios.
  • Much of the rest of the money was stolen by street gangs domestically, who have made up a greater share of the fraudsters in recent months.

What they're saying: “Widespread fraud at the state level in pandemic unemployment insurance during the previous Administration is one of the most serious challenges we inherited," said White House economist Gene Sperling.

  • "President Biden has been clear that this type of activity from criminal syndicates is despicable and unacceptable. It is why we passed $2 billion for UI modernizations in the American Rescue Plan, instituted a Department of Justice Anti-Fraud Task Force and an all-of-government Identity Theft and Public Benefits Initiative.”

How it works: Scammers often steal personal information and use it to impersonate claimants. Other groups trick individuals into voluntarily handing over their personal information.

  • "Mules" — low-level criminals — are given debit cards and asked to withdraw money from ATMs. That money then gets transferred abroad, often via bitcoin.

The big picture: Before the pandemic, unemployment claims were relatively rare, and generally lasted for such short amounts of time that international criminal syndicates didn't view them as a lucrative target.

  • After unemployment insurance became the primary vehicle by which the U.S. government tried to keep the economy afloat, however, all that changed.
  • Unemployment became where the big money was — and was also being run by bureaucrats who weren't as quick to crack down on criminals as private companies normally are.
  • Unemployment fraud is now offered on the dark web on a software-as-a-service basis, much like ransomware. States without fraud-detection services are naturally targeted the most.

The bottom line: Many states are now getting more sophisticated about preventing this kind of fraud. But it's far too late.

This story has been updated with the quote from the White House.

Go deeper

Jun 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The risk in Democrats' generous unemployment benefits

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The staff shortfalls Americans are finding as they head to restaurants and summer vacation spots illustrate the risk for Democrats over whether the government's extra $300 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits is to blame.

Why it matters: Twenty-five states — all run by Republican governors — are eliminating some or all of the UI benefits. Some are even offering back-to-work bonuses to further encourage a return to work. Expect the results to become midterm fodder next year.

Updated 15 mins ago - Science

NTSB probes crash that killed 10 in Alabama as storms lash Southeast

A car drives in the rain in Galveston, Texas. Photo: Zeng Jingning/China News Service via Getty Images

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Sunday that it's investigating a fiery multi-vehicle weekend crash in Alabama that killed 10 people, including nine children, as storms swept the Southeast.

The big picture: Saturday's crash on Interstate 65, south of Montgomery, occurred amid a tropical depression that left 13 people dead in Alabama as it triggered flash floods and spawned tornadoes that razed "dozens of homes," per AP.

Laurel Hubbard to become 1st openly trans athlete to compete at Olympics

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, when she became the first openly transgender athlete to represent NZ. Photo: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has announced that Laurel Hubbard has been selected for the women's weightlifting team for the Tokyo Games — making her the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the event.

The big picture: Hubbard, 43, is part of a five-member Kiwi weightlifting team and will compete in the women's super heavyweight category. Meanwhile, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe will become the first openly trans athlete to travel to the Olympics with Team USA, when she arrives in Tokyo as a reserve rider.