State investigators said Thursday that they have netted $150 million in cash that was taken illegally by suspects who filed fraudulent unemployment claims in the name of unsuspecting Ohioans.
So far only three people are facing criminal charges, all of them in Columbus, but more indictments are expected over time.
The case began last year when thousands of people were notified by Ohio Job and Family Services, the state’s unemployment compensation system, that they had filed for unemployment. In reality, those people were working and had not filed a claim. They later learned that fraudsters had filed the claim in their name in an attempt to get the state to pay out large sums of cash.
Ohio JFS Director Matt Damschroder said during a press briefing that more than $1.7 billion dollars went out between outright fraud and overpayments in traditional unemployment payments and from the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. Damschroder said they are working to track the movement of money from bank to bank as the culprits try to make off with it.
“We have partnered with banks here in Ohio and around the nation to help identify unemployment money that fraudsters have attempted to grab,” Damschroder said.
While the fraud was first detected over a year ago at the beginning of the health emergency, the state admits they were slow to react. Investigations were hampered by the COVID shut downs.
“Investigations couldn’t go forward. because of that and now we’re prioritizing individuals locked up and not indicted yet for crimes like terrorism, organized crime sort of thing,” said David Devillers, the former US Attorney for Southern Ohio who now is heading up the state investigation at JFS. While he worked for the Justice Department, Devillers ran the investigation and prosecution of former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder. Before that, the office also handled the corruption probe at Dayton City Hall.
Devillers said the probe will take years rather than months. He likened it to the mortgage fraud crisis of fifteen years ago where people used falsified paperwork and a series of bank transfers to hide their illegal activities. In this case he believes the people behind the theft of money are not only state and national players but also international thieves working around the globe to defraud other states and other governments. Still, he remains optimistic that they will be brought to justice.
“I promise you that there are a lot of good, hard working people who want to get this done. And we will work whatever way we can with law enforcement to make sure that’s done,” Devillers said.
Damschroder reminded people that if they believe someone has filed a fraudulent unemployment claim in their name that they should contact JFS online. Also, Damschroder announced that the state is setting up a new system to handle the cases where people who were overpaid from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance fund to file for a waiver to possibly enable them to keep the money and avoid paying it back. That system is expected to be launched soon, perhaps by the end of the month.
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