Roughly 24,500 new state and federal jobless claims were filed in Maine last week as authorities continued to investigate widespread fraud targeting the state’s unemployment insurance system.

Last week, the Maine Department of Labor said a sharp increase in new claims was suspicious and could be the result of widespread fraud perpetrated by organized criminal groups.

Around 12,000 initial and 16,800 continuing weekly benefits claims suspected to be fraudulent have been canceled, the department said Thursday. It received at least 10,000 reports of illegal claims from individuals and employers, department spokeswoman Jessica Picard said.

New claims filed last week covered 16,500 individual Mainers seeking jobless insurance benefits, according to the labor department. The remaining 8,000 claims were duplicates, a product of overlap between traditional state unemployment insurance and federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance available to those ineligible for state benefits.

The number of initial claims and individual claimants both decreased from the previous week, when the state reported about 37,000 initial unemployment claims filed by 24,500 individuals.

When fraud reports picked up last week, the department temporarily halted benefits payments for up to 72 hours and reinstated normal, longer processing times to weed out illegal claims.

Many claims were released a week ago, Picard said. But some claims flagged as potentially fraudulent have been withheld until information can be validated. Picard said she did not know the number of potentially fraudulent claims awaiting verification, but she said it is likely some are genuine.

“The magnitude of reports of fraudulent claims has resulted in the necessity for actions to be taken that would not be under normal circumstances,” Picard said.

People will know their claim has been flagged as potentially fraudulent if it shows a status of paid with a date 9/9/9999, the department said.

In order to verify the authenticity of the claims, claimants must email scans or photos of two forms of government-issued identification to [email protected]

Acceptable forms of identification include drivers’ license, passport, military ID, Social Security card, birth certificate and a recent utility bill that includes the person’s name and residential address.

State lawmakers on the Labor and Housing Committee on Thursday criticized the verification system. Having people email sensitive personal information seems ill-advised for a department already reeling from thousands of fraudulent claims, said Republican Sen. Stacey Guerin of Glenburn.

“The system has been compromised over 10,000 times by fraud, and now they are asking constituents to send in pictures of passports, ID, non-photo ID like Social Security numbers,” she said.

The labor department has said there is no evidence personal information is being stolen from its system, and that it believes the fraudulent claims are being filed with previously acquired information.

The department has urged everyone to file for unemployment online and stick to a weekly call-in schedule alphabetized by last name. It is looking at alternative ways of submitting identification for those who do not have computer or internet access, Picard said.

The abrupt halt to weekly payments left some jobless Mainers feeling adrift.

Don and Dyla McIntire suddenly found themselves without a job this spring when they closed Heritage Printing in Farmington for good after more than 30 years.

The couple, both 72, started receiving unemployment payments when they were allowed to apply under the federal program. It was the first time they’ve ever received jobless benefits.

But then a week or so ago, payments suddenly stopped and they don’t know what to do next. They said every time they call the unemployment office, they get the same result: The phone rings until they get a message saying no one is available to answer their questions, and then the line disconnects.

“We can’t get through,” Dyla McIntire said. “I called the governor’s office, what are we supposed to do? Someone call and let me know what to do next. I think people have been very good about the pandemic and tried to distance themselves and stay at home, but it is getting to the point that they need some answers.”

Nationally, nearly 1.9 million claims for unemployment benefits were filed last week, the ninth straight decline since applications spiked in mid-March and a sign that the gradual reopening of businesses has slowed the loss of jobs across the country.

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