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Curtailing Unemployment Insurance Claims Fraud

By SurePayroll President

One victim of identify fraud isn't talking. It's somebody you know. In fact, you do business with them all the time.

Everywhere you look, identity fraud is making news these days. LexisNexis, ChoicePoint, Bank of America, SAIC and others have recently announced that their data has been compromised, exposing hundreds of thousands of Americans to possible identity fraud.

In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Better Business Bureau (BBB) both estimated that more than 9 million American consumers fall victim to identity theft each year.

We've all heard about the most publicized identity theft crime — thieves using stolen social security numbers to apply for credit cards. In many cases, victims don't realize something's awry until they apply for a loan and find their credit has been destroyed.

But the most underpublicized identity theft crime is one in which thieves defraud state governments of payroll taxes by filing fraudulent unemployment claims. This crime depletes state unemployment insurance trust funds, which can result in tax increases for employers to keep the funds solvent.

It can be a fairly lucrative scheme. File a false unemployment claim and you can receive $400 per week for 26 weeks. That's a fairly quick $10,400. Do it for 100 social security numbers and you've made a quick $1,040,000. It's tough to make crime pay much better than that.

The victims in this crime — the state workforce agencies that tirelessly oversee our unemployment insurance programs and the United States Department of Labor — are reticent to discuss this topic for obvious reasons. Essentially, they've lost money provided to them by businesses to adequately stock state unemployment funds. The money has gone into the pockets of fraudsters instead of into the needy pockets of the legitimately unemployed.

While credit card companies invest extraordinary amounts of money to detect identity fraud, state governments are lagging behind on investing in systems that could detect and deter fraud. Moreover, some federal IT initiatives that could slow down unemployment insurance claims fraud are moving at a glacial pace.

While the vast majority of government employees work diligently to do the right thing, the slow response of state and federal agencies is quickly threatening the integrity of the unemployment insurance system. It turns out that crime is a very efficient market and word spreads quickly. Got a stolen social security number? You can more easily turn it into money by defrauding the government than by defrauding the credit card companies.

The net result of this fraud is that unemployment taxes are going up, and that makes it that much harder for small business and big business to do business. Even more, higher payroll taxes slow down economic growth because they make it more expensive to hire new employees.

Solving the Problem
I run SurePayroll, the fifth largest payroll service in the country.

Unfortunately, my industry is not immune to identify theft. In a well publicized case, thieves grabbed payroll records from payroll processing companies ADP and Telepayroll. Eventually the thieves were caught, but only after they had racked up $18.7 million in bogus unemployment claims. More recently, payroll processor Paymaxx acknowledged flaws in their online W-2 service that exposed customers' payroll records.

Clearly, companies that have sensitive data must take the proper steps to protect the data. That's the first step in solving the problem.

But it's public awareness and governmental systems that ultimately will save the day. Here's what needs to happen:

Admitting that We Have a Problem
Kathy Moore, Chief of the Employment Security Office of Special Investigations for the State of Washington, has started talking publicly about the amount of fraud making its way through the system. Other states need to follow suit and acknowledge that unemployment fraud is hurting small and big business economics. Discussing the problem will help rally the allocation of funds needed to adequately address the problem.

Investment in Fraud Detection Software
Software is available on the market that is specifically designed to detect and prevent unemployment insurance fraud, including individual fraudsters and organized fraud rings. Most states have not yet invested in this software. They need to do so — fast.

Accelerating National New Hire Database Initiative
The soon-to-be-released National New Hire Database will put a dent in individual unemployment frauds. Currently, if a crook works in Illinois and makes unemployment claims in Michigan, it's unlikely the crime will be detected. The new database will make it easier to cross-match new hire data with unemployment claim data to catch those crooks who falsely claim they are unemployed while collecting a paycheck for their job. Let's pick up the pace on this initiative. We've been working on it for far too long.

Develop a National Stolen Social Security Database
An unemployment claim that is fraudulently made on a stolen social security number would be easier to detect if there were a national database of stolen social security numbers. At the present time, this initiative isn't even being discussed in the Halls of Congress, even though it should be near the top of their agenda. If and when a database is created, the only caveat is that it must possess airtight security features.

Increase the Penalties for Unemployment Insurance Claims Fraud
If a criminally-minded individual is contemplating defrauding state and federal government, he needs to know that if he is caught, the punishment will be swift and severe. A slap on the wrist is not a helpful deterrent.

Allocate More Federal Funds to State Agencies
The ability of state agencies to fight unemployment insurance fraud is constrained in large part by the funding they receive from the federal government. State workforce agency directors and employees have the skills and talent to fix this problem. What they don’t have are enough funds. The Bush Administration's 2006 Budget includes both funding requests and a set of legislative proposals that will strengthen the integrity of the unemployment insurance system. Approval of these welcome initiatives needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Fraudsters, Take Notice
These problems are fixable. Everyone benefits from making it tough to commit unemployment insurance fraud. Collectively, our message to fraudsters must be clear: Take notice. Your days are numbered.

When it comes to protecting the payroll tax investments of American companies, a business-as-usual approach by state and federal government agencies won’t get the job done. It's true that government is being mauled by unemployment insurance fraud, but let's not blame the victim. Instead, let's implore and help them to act faster to fix the system.

Economic recoveries in the U.S. have historically been built on the foundation of small business. If the American economy is to remain strong, it must help small businesses grow by getting tougher on unemployment insurance claims fraud. Working together, we can stop fraud dead in its tracks.

Michael Alter is President of SurePayroll. His payroll outsourcing firm processes and remits payroll taxes for small businesses across the country. He is a contributer to The Payroll Blog and Inc.com's Trade Secrets.