GAO Pegs Unemployment Insurance Fraud Tally at More Than $60 billion

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At the same time, the congressional watchdog cautioned that governmentwide fraud estimates are potentially dicey.

The Government Accountability Office said in two new reports issued Monday that getting reliable data on government fraud is extremely difficult, while hazarding that unemployment insurance fraud during the pandemic may be in excess of $60 billion.

The reports come as multiple committees of the new Republican-led Congress prepare to focus oversight efforts on government spending. 

"Republicans are committed to investigating fraud and conducting rigorous oversight on behalf of working families," Jason Smith (R-Mo.), the new chairman of chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement about the new reports. "Congressional Democrats walked away from their oversight responsibilities of getting to the bottom of how this happened, what they could do to prevent it, and even how much has fully been lost.”

One report offers an overview of some of the data problems that prevent program overseers from producing reliable estimates of governmentwide fraud and a second report examines fraud in unemployment insurance programs. That report includes what GAO says is a conservative estimate for upwards of $60 billion in unemployment insurance fraud during an 18-month period starting April 2020.

GAO had to rely on extrapolations and projections made using data on probes into unemployment benefits fraud from across the states to come up with its estimate. GAO takes pains to explain all the variables and assumptions that go into producing these estimates, although it's not clear that customers are paying close attention

Seto Bagdoyan, director in GAO’s Forensic Audits and Investigative Services Team, told FCW in an interview that usually when he talks about data reliability, “the eyes glaze over, or they’re just plain not interested.”

Rebecca Shea, a GAO director for forensic audits and investigative services, told FCW that "having a number, understanding the extent of a problem is important for your ability to bring attention to it and to address the problem." Shea added: “And it is important to get that accountability that you’re looking for.

GAO also gave the Labor Department a new recommendation to design and implement an anti-fraud strategy for unemployment. It says that the department still hasn’t completed six other recommendations made in fall of 2021. In reply comments, acting Labor Department Assistant Secretary Brent Parton said the agency was following GAO's recommendations but on its own schedule.