Among the most urgent challenges raised by the coronavirus pandemic are unemployment payments and the massive fraud perpetrated on the aging and fragile infrastructure of some state systems. Illinois’ is no exception.
As we mark the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, to say our Responds unit heard an ”earful” about Illinois’ Department of Employment Security (IDES) would be an understatement.
Illinois residents reached out to NBC 5 Responds more than 700 times over the past year. Many of them were out of patience and, more importantly, out of money. At the beginning of the pandemic, just filing a claim for benefits was the struggle. Now, claims are being filed in record numbers, just by the wrong people.
When NBC 5 Responds caught up with Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul last July, he showed us the debit card that showed his name was used by con artists trying to tap into his unemployment benefits. This month, we asked Raoul how his case turned out.
“Well, you know for me, I didn’t know what was going on because it was early in the process," Raoul said. "So I was unaware, even as the Attorney General … of the scope of the fraud taking place."
“Unaware” as we all were. Now we know that nationally, Raoul’s name was one of thousands swept up in a massive case of unemployment benefits fraud. The US Department of Labor now estimates at least $63 billion was paid out improperly in claims. Much of that was fraud, according to an audit by the US Department of Labor's Office of the Inspector General .
Early on, victims whose names were used told us they felt alone and afraid. Many said they were unable to get through to IDES to report that their name and benefits were being accessed by criminals. Employers told us they, too, felt helpless, unable to prove to IDES that their employees were, indeed, still employed.
Why was IDES so slow to respond? For insight and answers, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency.
NBC 5 Responds learned fraud is a major reason IDES was seemingly overwhelmed. Between Jan. 1, 2020, and March 4, 2021, the agency received approximately 1,528,474 allegations of fraud, according to the documents we obtained.
As for its much-maligned callback system, we found the state’s ratio last summer was just as dire as many reported. In July, for example, completing only 36.5% of requested callbacks. Those numbers did improve in August, with an 88.4% completion rate, according to the numbers provided to NBC 5 by the agency.
The completion rate took a dip in the fall, but that came as the agency fielded an enormous increase in fraud claims.
IDES field offices remain closed to the public. This month in front of lawmakers, IDES Acting Director Kristin Richards reported steady progress, saying the agency is steadily improving in its ability to respond to calls and trends in "real time."
Curiously, many complaints about IDES ended up at another state agency: the AG's office. On its 2020 list of top complaints, COVID-related matters knocked the usual suspects out of the water, bringing in almost 5,000 complaints.
We asked AG Raoul which of the topics reported to his office most got under his skin this past year. His answer: scammers stealing and gouging prices of PPE when health care workers need it most.
“We celebrate the health provider heroes, including my wife, who's an anesthesiologist," Raoul said. “These are people who are putting themselves at risk. To think that they were trying to take advantage of medical providers and the government. That's, that's particularly disturbing."