INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- A fraud task force formed earlier this year by a state agency and prosecutors in Indianapolis has yielded its first arrests in the new push to crack down on unemployment fraud.
The Indianapolis Star reports (http://indy.st/XlQedi ) that the joint task force between the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and Marion County prosecutors resulted in charges in nine unemployment fraud cases last month.
The new initiative is targeting Indiana residents who steal money intended for workers who have lost a job and can't find a new one. State officials estimate fraudulent unemployment claims in Indiana exceeded $13 million last year.
Such scams affect taxpayer money as well as the bottom line of businesses, which pay into the trust fund that provides benefits and often pass that expense on to their customers.
Workforce Development office spokesman Joe Frank said catching people bilking the government out of jobless benefits has become easier because most of the functions of jobless claims — the application, screening and payment process — are now computerized.
"We can track people a lot quicker now," he said. "Now that we have these very good tools to really track fraud, we are really trying to get these folks prosecuted and get the money back as soon as possible."
Frank said that before the system was fully automated, officials had to try to match records from a partially computerized system with paper records, "and hopefully people didn't fall through the cracks."
Last year, officials identified $13 million in fraudulent claims out of total benefit payments of about $2 billion. Figures for March show that about 85,000 Hoosiers receive unemployment benefits.
While Frank said that $13 million is a fraction of the total payout, it cannot be ignored.
He said Indiana has done a good job recovering overpayments, including fraudulent claims. In 2011 — the most recent year for which comparable federal data are available — Indiana recovered about 67 percent. That gave the state the nation's sixth-highest rate.
The state agency's efforts to refine its ability to track fraud came as Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry was pushing an effort to expand the investigation and prosecution of white-collar crime.
"It became apparent the volume was such that we could justify having a full-time person assigned (to unemployment fraud cases)," Curry said, "but we didn't have the funds in our budget to pay for that."
But the state agency did have funding available and a plan was worked out to pair a dedicated prosecutor with 24 workforce department investigators to create the task force.
"It was a perfect trade-off," Curry said.
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com