A federal watchdog investigating the distribution of pandemic relief funds has tripled its estimate of the amount of money paid out in unemployment insurance that can be attributed to certain forms of fraud.
The watchdog, the Labor Department’s office of inspector general, previously attributed about $16 billion to duplicate payments or payments made to dead people, people with suspicious email accounts, or federal prisoners. The office now says the federal government likely made $45.6 billion in such payments.
Investigations by the inspector general’s office have led to criminal charges against more than 1,000 people accused of fraudulently receiving unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic. the office said in a statement Thursday.
“Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds were targeted by fraudsters seeking to exploit the UI program, resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments,” Inspector General Larry D. Turner said in the statement.
The investigations cover payments made from March 2020 to April 2022, when the federal government sent a flood of relief money to businesses and individuals, intended to boost the economy as coronavirus cases surged. The aid included $3.1 trillion that President Donald J. Trump approved in 2020, followed by a $1.9 trillion package that President Biden signed into law in 2021.
There was so much unemployment fraud that even after two years of work, federal investigators are just beginning to deal with it. Hundreds of people are working on fraud cases in the offices of 21 inspectors general. The FBI, the Secret Service, the Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service are also investigating the matter.
Authorities have said the fraud is so far-reaching that some small-dollar thefts will never be prosecuted. Last month, Mr. Biden signed bills doubling the statute of limitations for some pandemic-related fraud to 10 years.
“My message to those cheaters is this: you can’t hide. We are going to find you,” Biden said during the signing at the White House.