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Virginia Employment Commission shuts down online claims again to 'limit fraud'

A month after the launch of a new online unemployment system, the VEC has disabled online claims multiple times due to concerns about fraudulent activity.
Credit: 13News Now
The Virginia Employment Commission says it shut down online unemployment claim filing to "limit fraud."

NORFOLK, Va. — The Virginia Employment Commission has again disabled online unemployment claims, this time to "limit fraud," according to a VEC spokesperson.

Unemployed Virginians who need to file a claim are instructed to call in, either to 1-866-832-2363 for an initial claim or 1-800-897-5630 for a weekly claim.

Since launching a new online unemployment system in early November, the VEC has shut down its online claims application multiple times. Last month, state leaders said a new online portal would fix persistent issues with unemployment filing that were exposed during the pandemic.

"It’ll be better communication to our claimants as well as easier to apply for unemployment benefits," said Megan Healy, Virginia Secretary of Labor. "This technology is going to provide a better way of communicating with our claimants not through our call centers, and we’ve already seen that."

However, unemployed workers are once again being told to pick up the phone to file a claim.

The VEC website says the online claims application is down for “maintenance," although a spokesperson confirmed fraud concerns as the reason. 

That’s not surprising to unemployed workers like Okoya Walker, who discovered VEC’s fraud problem when a representative told her that her unemployment claim was flagged because someone previously tried to file a fraudulent claim for benefits under her name.

"I don’t think people understand how bad it is, 'cause it’s bad. I didn’t realize how bad it is until it happens to you," she said. "People do these types of things and get away with it, and then somebody like me comes along who needs it and suffers for it."

Walker said it took weeks to find out why her benefits didn’t arrive.

The VEC spokesperson did not respond to additional questions Thursday, including if the shutdown was due to a recent influx of fraudulent claims or when the online application is expected to be available again.

Virginia's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, a state watchdog agency, reported in November that VEC’s estimated overpayments attributed to fraud increased significantly during the pandemic.

JLARC estimates VEC paid out at least $70 million in fraudulent state benefits in 2020, plus $29 million in the first quarter of 2021.

The agency said VEC didn’t use critical fraud prevention and detection practices until 2021 which "likely would have reduced fraudulent payments made during the pandemic."

In April, the VEC suspended online claims filing in response to a “hijacking” scheme. Fraudsters changed the bank account information of eligible claimants to get money.

The JLARC report says VEC still hasn’t identified how many claims were affected.

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