By Associated Press - Friday, February 5, 2021

MIAMI (AP) - The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has deployed fraud-detection software on its mobile app due to fraudulent filings that likely contributed to a recent surge in new unemployment assistance applications, officials said.

Agency spokeswoman Emilie Oglesby told the Miami Herald that the state is investigating the extent of the problem. She could not say how many fraudulent claims may have been processed and paid.

“The state takes this very seriously,” Oglesby told the newspaper. “We have noticed a significant increase in the number of new claims over the past couple weeks.”

Every week, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports its estimate of initial applications to the U.S. Department of Labor, which then issues a nationwide unemployment report on Thursdays.

This week, Florida’s totals remained at their highest level since August for the second straight week, according to labor department reports. Florida’s unemployment number climbed from 62,818 to 71,046.

A week earlier, the federal agency reported that claims in Florida had unexpectedly risen from 39,226 to an initial estimate of 57,824. And 39,226 count also represented a significant revision from the 26,599 initially reported on Jan. 21.

Nationwide, unprecedented surges in requests for aid due to pandemic shutdowns strained state unemployment offices, and federal relief made this help for the jobless a richer target for fraud. By November, states across the country said they had paid as much as $36 billion in improper benefits, according to the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Oglesby said that the fraudulent filings are not affecting payments to current unemployment assistance recipients, who must continue to re-certify their eligibility every two weeks to receive their benefits.

“It’s definitely a reflection of how broken the system is,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orange County told the newspaper.

Eskamani, a Democrat, has been closely monitoring failures in the state’s unemployment system since the pandemic began and jobless numbers spiked. Since March, the state has paid approximately $21.6 billion in assistance to about 2.2 million claimants.

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