Fraudulent claims are bogging down the Department of Labor's system, which means delays for workers filing legitimate claims, Guam Department of Labor officials said.
Additionally, the fraudulent claims that have been flagged thus far, may be falsely boosting Guam's tally of initial unemployment claims.
The number of separation notices that 1,990 employers reported via hireguam.com shows 34,980 Guam workers were laid off, furloughed or got work hour cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as of Sunday.
But the "initial" unemployment claims filed with the Guam Department of Labor also as of Sunday is 35,155, which is higher than the actual number of displaced workers locally.
And as Guam DOL workers clear false claims out of the system, local residents are having to wait longer for their benefits.
Chrinice Castro, who was furloughed from her job in March after getting reduced hours in February, noticed that her latest weekly claims payment has been delayed after getting the first few ones on time.
"Not too sure why, but I was receiving weekly claims prior to July 21 payout dates," she told the Guam Daily Post on Monday. "It's been hard without a paycheck. My job ... is at the airport and with the lack of flights, I have not been able to return to work."
She chose direct deposit for her unemployment aid.
Labor Director David Dell'Isola said it's unfortunate that legitimate unemployment claims get caught up in these batches of fraudulent claims.
He said the fraud cases are taking too much of Guam Labor's time and resources.
Uptick in false claims
While the number of initial claims has nearly reached a plateau, Labor noticed a surge of suspected fraudulent claims that get more sophisticated each time, he said.
"That's just what happens when you throw out the tekken (gill net), you gotta catch some of the good fish along with some of the ones that you don't want. Unfortunately, 10% of our local people who have legitimate claims get caught into that net and that's why we have to circle around and go through all those and resolve those ones with problems," Dell'Isola said.
Senators expressed concern about the impact of fraud cases on workers who need the help, but they said they're glad Labor has been detecting the fraudulent claims.
On Friday alone, "more than 50%" of several hundred claims were "fraud," Dell'Isola told senators at an oversight hearing on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
"As they keep pounding our system, every week, these fraud people are zeroing in and getting more and more advanced, and (it's) getting harder and harder to pick those fraud claims out," he said.
Castro hopes that her weekly PUA claim isn't part of the flagged batch of claims "because I do have my letter and all my documents uploaded into the system."
Overall, several thousands have already gotten their federal funded unemployment aid, which this week will amount to $212.5 million including taxes.
Still no aid
There are also PUA applicants who said they have not received any unemployment benefit since filing in early June. One of them is Clarissa Baumgartner, who was furloughed on March 20.
"I haven't heard anything from them. I've called, emailed," she said on Monday. She filed a PUA claim on June 5.
She chose direct deposit as PUA payment option, and said she's sure she inputted the correct bank information.
"Funds are running low and I just gave birth in April so I'm really hoping and praying they can get to me ASAP," she said.
Her fiancé was also furloughed on March 20 but thankfully, she said, he was able to get back to work June 1. He also hasn't received unemployment assistance, she said.
"It’s definitely been hard thinking you’ll be back to work and not expecting to be out of work for a period of time. I would appreciate it if they can just respond with an update so we know what to expect instead of worrying if we’ll have enough," Baumgartner said.
Sen. Amanda Shelton said on Friday that she's received calls from residents saying their unemployment claim was flagged as fraudulent by Labor.
"That's slowing down their processing for their claim and so they are being told to now have an appointment to clear things up and for (Labor) to do your due diligence to make sure that their claim is valid," the senator said.
Guam Labor has been working with the FBI and the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General to detect, investigate and prevent the loss of unemployment aid dollars to scammers, Guam DOL officials said.
Dell'Isola does not have an estimate of the amount that fraudulent filers have tried to steal from legitimate workers needing help, but he told senators that PUA fraud in Washington State alone involved more than $1 billion. Dell'Isola earlier told senators that most who filed fraud claims are from outside Guam.
Scammers have also been trying to get into an online forum for Guam's displaced workers. The group has nearly 3,450 members.
Barbara McCarron, one of the administrators for the online forum, said in just the past week, she probably blocked "50 people who are not from Guam."
"Our PUA group has starting getting requests to join from many different countries such as the Philippines, Nigeria and India. We get many applicants from the states," she said on Monday. "We are very strict regarding who we approve because we don’t want outsiders try to scam our vulnerable members."