Maine officials have weeded out thousands of fraudulent unemployment claims as the nation confronts a wave of false benefit applications fueled by stolen personal information.

The Maine Department of Labor said Wednesday that it has identified and canceled 2,200 false claims filed illegally with purloined identities. The total amount paid out to scammers filing fraudulent claims is still under investigation, the department said.

Millions of dollars in benefits payments could have been made in response to illegal claims based on the experience of other states, the department said.

“While fraud is not new or unique, organized criminals across the nation are now targeting unemployment programs expanded during the pandemic in unprecedented ways,” Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman said in a statement.

In a remote news briefing Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills expressed her concerns about the potential drain fraudulent claims could have on Maine’s unemployment system.

“I do not want millions and millions of dollars of this trust fund to go out the door to the fraudsters who are preying upon people and businesses all across this country,” Mills said. “The result might well be denial of unemployment claims for all the wrong reasons.”

On Tuesday, the department said it was pausing benefits payments for two days so it could remove false claims, and that it would reinstate the usual 10- to 14-day processing period for initial claims, which had been shortened to seven says in response to high demand prompted by the pandemic.

The department said it is is working with state and federal law enforcement agencies to find illegal claims and prosecute offenders. The U.S. Secret Service warned this month in a memo that international criminal groups were targeting state unemployment offices.

About 1,000 reports of potential unemployment claims fraud are currently under investigation, the department said.

Victims of unemployment claims fraud and identity theft will not have to repay illegally obtained benefits payments and will still be able to apply for benefits if they lose their job, it said.

If someone believes a false claim has been filed in their name, they should report it to the department at maine.gov/unemployment/idtheft/ and take precautions to protect their identity, the department said.

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