PHOENIX (3 On Your Side) -- Arizona is investigating more than one million unemployment claims for possible fraud, 3 On Your Side has learned. It's a staggering portion of the 1.8 million initial Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims the state has received since March, and represents a significant spike compared to two weeks ago when the Department of Economic Security said the state was investigating hundreds of thousands' of suspicious claims.
Gov. Doug Ducey announced on Friday afternoon that Arizonans will see unemployment benefits extended.
Brett Bezio, a spokesperson for DES says claims may be flagged for possible fraud for several reasons including out of state addresses, invalid social security numbers, international IP addresses, and large numbers of claims using the same banking information.
While the state has partnered with multiple state and federal agencies to root out fraud, some Arizonans' legitimate claims are on hold, caught up in the fraud investigation.
Bezio did not disclose the average time it takes to determine a PUA claim, so it is unclear how long most people are waiting for their payments. Glenda Spencer, from Florence, said she has not received her benefits in nine weeks, and added calls and emails to DES to resolve the issue go unanswered.
"It says right here that I am allowed to get the money, that I am qualified but it doesn’t let me have the money and it won’t tell me why," Spencer told 3 On Your Side. "At the end of the month, we will have no money in our account. We have expended all of our money that we have."
One Sun City resident says he hasn't seen a penny in more than nine weeks.
Arizona's situation is not unique. As federal unemployment assistance boosted claims by $600 a week, unemployment systems across the country became a lucrative target for scammers. Federal officials have said an international fraud ring may be responsible for the losses, estimated to be in the billions nationwide.
"DES has focused immense efforts toward ensuring that all those who are eligible receive benefits," Bezio wrote in an email to 3 On Your Side. "In order to expedite review of potentially fraudulent cases, we have partnered with the Arizona Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Division, Arizona Department of Revenue, U.S. Department of Labor, data analytics companies, financial institutions and all levels of law enforcement to strengthen our ability to capture fraud while ensuring individuals eligible for benefits receive them."
"We will continue to balance the need to ensure program integrity and protect taxpayer funds with providing critical assistance to families in need," he added.
Bezio did not say how much money Arizona has paid out in fraudulent benefits. In all, DES has issued $8.8 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 1.17 million Arizonans since March. This week, the state added an extra $300 in federal assistance to weekly claims, bringing Arizona's maximum weekly benefit to $540.
According to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, anyone who is caught filing a fraudulent unemployment claim could face felony charges. Victims of this fraud should immediately notify employers, DES, and credit reporting agencies.