ANNAPOLIS — Maryland officials uncovered a “massive, sophisticated, criminal enterprise” that involved a half-billion dollars in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims, Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday.
The widespread identity theft involved more than 47,500 fraudulent claims that totaled more than $501 million, he said.
Maryland officials exposed the illegal scheme and notified federal authorities, which “helped shed light on related fraudulent criminal activities in at least a dozen other states,” Hogan said.
He thanked Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson and her team for detecting an unusual increase in out-of-state federal pandemic unemployment assistance claims.
The claims attempted to use stolen identities and personal information of “innocent and unsuspecting individuals, which was apparently acquired from previous national data breaches,” Hogan said.
The state labor department immediately notified federal officials including Maryland U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, and the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Labor, he said.
“We have been coordinating with them on this ongoing investigation,” Hogan said. “The … Maryland Department of Labor has not experienced any breach of our unemployment insurance information system, and Maryland claimants’ personal information has not been compromised in any way.”
Maryland was the first state in the country to establish a comprehensive website that helped to process more than $4.3 billion in federal unemployment insurance benefit payments to more than 489,000 residents, he said.
“The (labor) department has successfully processed 96.4% of all the claims in Maryland, and the percentage of cases that they’re still working hard to help people resolve is down to 3.6%,” Hogan said.
Robinson said her department has taken actions to further enhance security.
“We will continue to closely monitor our unemployment insurance system,” she said.
Special Agent Derek Pickle, Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Labor, said there’s been a “dramatic increase” in unemployment insurance fraud across the country since the global pandemic began.
“Today, more than 50% of our investigative matters pertain to unemployment insurance, and that number continues to grow by the day,” he said.
Maryland’s COVID-19 daily positivity rate Wednesday dropped to 4.26%, Hogan said.
“And our seven-day positivity rate dropped again today to 4.49%, which is a more than 83% decrease since its peak 90 days ago,” he said.
“However, we are concerned that 40 states across America are experiencing (COVID-19 case) spikes and increasing numbers, including states just across our borders,” Hogan said. “And, we’re watching a few concerning trends in our state.”
The COVID-19 positivity rate in Marylanders under age 35 is 83% higher than residents above that age, he said.
“Yesterday, I sent a letter to county leaders urging them to enforce public health requirements in bars and restaurants across the state, reminding them that it was the responsibility of their local health departments, local liquor boards and inspectors and local law enforcement agencies to work together to … enforce these critical health measures,” Hogan said. “Young people should avoid crowded bars, house parties, and large gatherings of any kind.”
The governor also advised Marylanders to avoid travel to areas that are experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
“This battle is not behind us,” Hogan said and added all Marylanders are safer at home, should continue wearing masks when in public and practice physical distancing. “Only you can keep Maryland open for business by continuing to follow the public health guidance.”
He also said the state has a “substantial” stockpile of COVID-19 test kits that should last well into the fall.
Hogan also discussed possible scenarios to reopen the state’s schools.
State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon will provide an update at a press conference next week, he said.
“A few counties have already begun submitting their proposed plans,” Hogan said and added the deadline is August 14. “Once all of that input is received, the state department of education will institute protocols that follow (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance, and take into account the input of public health experts (to) provide for flexibility for our local school systems.”
On Wednesday, Maryland had 75,016 cases of COVID-19, which included 756 new cases and seven deaths in the past 24 hours.
The Allegany County Health Department reported five new cases of the disease, bringing the county’s cumulative total to 223.
“The latest cases include a male and female in their 30s, two females in their 20s, and a female in her 50s who has required hospitalization,” ACHD stated in a press release.
The Garrett County Health Department reported two new COVID-19 cases, which brings the county’s total to 26.
“The two new positive cases are one male in his 40s and one female in her teens,” GCHD stated in a press release.
Both people have symptoms and are isolating at home.
"The best way to protect yourself and slow the spread of COVID-19 is to practice social distancing, wear a face covering when indoors with non-family members, and frequently wash your hands," said Tiffany Fratz, GCHD’s director of personal health, via the release.
The next community COVID-19 testing opportunity in Garrett County is set for 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 17 in the parking lot between the Health Department and the Mountain Laurel Medical Center at 1025 Memorial Drive in Oakland.
The testing does not include a check for COVID-19 antibodies, is free and does not require an appointment or a doctor’s order.
“This event is intended for persons who do not have symptoms,” the release states. “Persons with symptoms of COVID-19 or those who want antibody testing should contact their health care provider.”
For more on the Garrett testing, call 301-334-7770 or 301-895-3111.