N.C. effort to crack down on unemployment fraud starts with questions

State fights fraud in unemployment benefits by increasing scrutiny

dranii@newsobserver.comDecember 28, 2012 

A new questionnaire that jobless workers must complete in order to receive their unemployment checks stresses that anyone providing the state with false information about their claims can be prosecuted.

“It’s an extra effort on our part to crack down on fraud,” said Larry Parker, spokesman for the state Division of Employment Security. “We want people to be aware of the consequences of lying.”

The new questionnaire, introduced last week, boosts the number of questions jobless workers must answer from four to 14. It coincides with a new state law that makes it a felony to improperly obtain more than $400 in benefits. The law was passed by the legislature earlier this year and took effect Dec. 1.

Jobless workers must provide information about their job searches, whether they have been employed during the week, and other tidbits on a weekly basis in order to receive their unemployment checks. Lying could enable someone to receive a check who isn’t legally entitled to it.

The questionnaire requires jobless workers to indicate that they recognize that they “may be prosecuted in a court of law for giving false statements and/or for withholding information.” It also requires them to declare twice that the answers they provide are “true and accurate.”

The U.S. Department of Labor recommended expanding the questionnaire.

The new state law makes fraudulently obtaining more than $400 in benefits a Class I felony punishable by three to eight months in prison plus a fine.

Parker said fraud has been on the upswing in the state because more workers have been unemployed for longer periods since the recession hit, increasing the opportunities for fraud. North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 9.1 percent in November, well above the national rate of 7.7 percent.

Last year the agency detected 6,077 instances of fraud, up 29 percent from 2010. However, this year’s fraud cases are on track to decline considerably, with 2,731 reported through the end of September.

Only the most blatant, egregious cases are prosecuted, Parker said. Last year, 286 cases were referred to prosecutors.

“We don’t go to court with everybody,” he said. “A lot of folks will pay us back.”

Although the agency had “intermittent network issues” Sunday that made it difficult for some jobless workers to fill out the questionnaires and file for their benefits, the problems were unrelated to the debut of the expanded questionnaire, Parker said.

Last month the state announced an initiative with the cooperation of the Internal Revenue Service to recover benefit payments that were obtained fraudulently.

The Division of Employment Security sent letters to more than 19,200 people who have committed fraud and exhausted their appeals, notifying them that they are being targeted by the program.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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