State officials crack down on unemployment fraud

Indiana is stepping up efforts to catch people who are collecting unemployment illegally, resulting in 14 felony convictions so far this year.

The Indiana Department of Workforce Development has caught more than 135 people falsely claiming jobless benefits since 2006. Sixty-two of those have been convicted of felonies.

"Most of these are people already working full-time, but feel like 'I'm not making enough money at this job, so I'm entitled to unemployment,' " department spokesman Joe Frank told The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne. "To them, it's like someone else's money."

More than 264,000 Indiana residents were out of work in July, and more than 87,000 of them were receiving unemployment checks.

Workforce development officials say cracking down on violators ensures that those who are eligible for the money—up to $390 a week—can get it.

One part of the crackdown involves publicizing the names and photographs of offenders. Visitors to the agency's website can access a link listing the names and photographs of those recently convicted of unemployment fraud, along with the penalties they have incurred.

Frank said the idea originated with former commissioner Mark Everson, who adopted the idea while working as commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in President George W. Bush's administration.

The idea is that showing the consequences of trying to cheat the system will deter the activity.

"People look at the website and see that it's a big deal to say you're unemployed and you're working. It's a felony," Frank said.

Violators must repay the benefits they collected illegally—more than $46,000, in some cases listed on the site—and face other consequences, including multiple years on probation and a permanent criminal record.

Workforce Development Commissioner Scott Sanders said he plans to continue to keep the heat on those trying to defraud the agency. His message: "We will catch you if you break the law and you will be punished."

Maurice Emsellem, a policy co-director with National Employment Law Project in New York, said it's more common for agencies to deny benefits to people who should receive them than it is for the unemployed to commit fraud.

He said the government needs to take a balanced approach to ferreting out problems.

"People who are often entitled to their benefits are getting caught up innocently in these overpayment proceedings," he said. "The government needs to (help them) with the same kind of vigor they do with unemployment fraud."

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