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Fraud Overwhelms Pandemic-Related Unemployment Programs

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Web pages used to show information for collecting unemployment insurance in Virginia, right, and reporting fraud and identity theft in Pennsylvania, are displayed on the respective state web pages, Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Zelienople, Pa. Massive fraud in the nation's unemployment system is raising alarms even as President Joe Biden and Congress prepare to pour hundreds of billions more into expanded benefits for those left jobless by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With the floodgates set to open on another round of unemployment aid, states are being hammered with a new wave of fraud as they scramble to update security systems and block scammers who already have siphoned billions of dollars from pandemic-related jobless programs.

The fraud is fleecing taxpayers, delaying legitimate payments and turning thousands of Americans into unwitting identity theft victims. Many states have failed to adequately safeguard their systems, and a review by The Associated Press finds that some will not even publicly acknowledge the extent of the problem.

The massive sham springs from prior identity theft from banks, credit rating agencies, health care systems and retailers. Fraud perpetrators, sometimes in China, Nigeria or Russia, buy stolen personal identifying information on the dark web and use it to flood state unemployment systems with bogus claims.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating unemployment fraud by “transnational criminal organizations, sophisticated domestic actors, and individuals across the United States,” said Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the department’s criminal division.

The Labor Department inspector general’s office estimates that more than $63 billion has been paid out improperly through fraud or errors — roughly 10% of the total amount paid under coronavirus pandemic-related unemployment programs since March.

“We’re all learning that there is an epidemic of fraud,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House’s powerful Ways and Means Committee. Brady said the $63 billion estimate “is larger than the entire budget of the Department of Homeland Security.”

“These are frightening levels of fraud,” he said.

California has been the biggest target, with an estimated $11 billion in fraudulent payments and an additional $19 billion in suspect accounts. Colorado has paid out nearly as much to scammers — an estimated $6.5 billion — as it has to people who filed legitimate unemployment claims.

Other estimates, according to AP reporting across the states, range from several hundred thousand dollars in smaller states such as Alaska and Wyoming to hundreds of millions in more populous states such as Massachusetts and Ohio.

The nationwide fraud has fed on twin vulnerabilities: a flood of jobless benefit applications since the pandemic began that has overwhelmed state unemployment agencies and antiquated benefit systems that are easy prey for crafty and persistent criminals.

In Ohio, weekly first-time unemployment claims have ranged from 17,000 to more than 40,000 during the pandemic. But since late last month, those claims have topped more than 140,000 some weeks, with many of them believed to be fraudulent. The state has paid at least $330 million in fraudulent pandemic unemployment benefit claims.

Trying to catch so many bogus claims delays payouts to Ohioans who are legitimately in need of help. In the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, Cynthia Sbertoli was receiving $228 a week after she was laid off in March from her job with a nonprofit that runs high school student exchange programs.

Her benefits were put on hold in January after she informed the state that someone had tried to use her identity in a scam to claim benefits. She thought the problem was resolved but has yet to see a renewal of her benefit checks, which she and her husband use to help pay for a son’s vision and auditory therapy.

“It’s just not a good way to take care of people,” said Sbertoli, 49.

In Indiana, Kentucky and Maryland, officials have said that for certain weeks in the new year at least two-thirds of the claims they received were classified as suspicious due to problems verifying identities. It’s not the first brush with serious fraud for Maryland. In July, officials said they’d discovered a massive criminal enterprise that had stolen more than $500 million in unemployment benefits.

Among states that have been hardest hit are those participating in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program adopted by Congress last year. It has been a lifeline for out-of-work freelancers and gig workers who normally don’t qualify for unemployment insurance, but it’s also been a boon for criminals who use stolen identities to make claims. Nearly 800,000 of the 1.4 million claims Ohio has received through this program have been tagged for potential fraud.

Scams have been so widespread that the U.S. Department of Justice is setting aside money to hire more prosecutors. In New York alone, the Department of Labor says it has referred “hundreds of thousands of fraud cases” to federal prosecutors. The state says it has blocked $5.5 billion in fraudulent claims, while New Jersey says it’s prevented $2.5 billion from flowing into the hands of criminals.

Despite those efforts, a government watchdog agency says not enough states are taking the necessary steps to prevent fraud.

In its memo this past week, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General said that by the end of last year, 22 of the 54 state and territorial workforce agencies were still not following its repeated recommendation to join a data exchange run by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies.

That system is designed to check Social Security numbers used in claims to see if they are being used in multiple states, or are linked to dead people or other scam methods. The office said it had found $5.4 billion in fraudulent payments from March through October.

The biggest chunk of that, $3.5 billion, came through claims that used the same Social Security numbers in multiple states. One number was used on claims in 40 states. Twenty-nine of the states paid those claims, totaling more than $220,000.

“The Department needs to take immediate action and increase its efforts to ensure (states) implement effective controls to mitigate fraud in these high risk areas,” the inspector general warned Labor officials.

The people whose identities are used to claim improper benefits often don’t find out until they receive their tax statements.

Andrew Heidtke received a letter in September from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development notifying him that unemployment claims he never applied for were being processed.

“I had no idea what was happening,” said Heidtke, who works as an administrative assistant for an engineering lobbying organization. “I kind of just thought it was spam at first.”

Another victim was 99-year-old Harry Hollingsworth of Strongsville, Ohio. The retired elevator car factory worker received a form in late January showing he had received $3,156 in benefits. Hollingsworth died recently, and his son, Jim Hollingsworth, said the bogus claim created a big hassle.

“It looks like the state, they dropped the ball on this completely,” he said.

In its own survey of state governments, the AP found that many are not publicly disclosing the level of fraud. Some officials expressed concern that providing any information, no matter how general, could provide criminals an opening to exploit their systems further.

President Joe Biden’s administration is pledging to cut down on unemployment fraud even as it tries to extend benefits through September. As part of previous legislation, the administration is sending states $200 million to fight it.

That would be welcome in Virginia, where House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, a Republican, said the Legislature’s watchdog agency should investigate how the state allowed $40 million in bogus payments through prison inmate-related scams.

“How many desperate people, laid off through no fault of their own, could have been helped with that money?” he asked. “It’s maddening.”

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Raising Canes Opens Clearwater Location to Rave Reviews

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Customers lined up around the block for the grand opening of the new Raising Cane's in Clearwater. Photo: Todd Grasley/Florida National News.
Customers lined up around the block for the grand opening of the new Cane's in Clearwater. Photo: Todd Grasley/Florida National News.

CLEARWATER, Fla. (FNN) – Hundreds of people lined up Tuesday for the grand opening of Raising Canes, the latest chicken hot spot in the Tampa Bay area. Raising Canes, which was founded in Louisiana, dubbed Clearwater as their first Florida location and fans delivered a warm welcome for the chain that proudly proclaims, “we serve only the most crave-able chicken finger meals, it’s our one love.”

The Pena’s showing some sibling love wanted to be the first in line for this momentous occasion. Getting in line at 10 PM, the duo planned to camp out with friends.

“We had to stay up all night, but it was fun,” said Ashley Pena. “We are definitely going to remember this experience.”

20 of the first 100 people were entered into a drawing to win free Raising Canes for a year!

For Kim Boldus, bringing the franchise to the area hits close to home and means the world to her.

“Raising Canes is really all about being in the community,” she said. I’m really excited personally and professionally because I am from this area, born and raised. I am very excited to bring this amazing restaurant. We do so many amazing things to pair with the community and I can’t wait to see what we do here in Clearwater.”

According to their website, Raising Canes supports over 30,000 local organizations. At the grand opening, they had the support of the local Chamber of Commerce as well as the Mayor to celebrate this momentous occasion.

After the pomp and circumstance, it was time to eat, much to the delight of the hungry fans waiting for a taste of chicken tender goodness, some who has experienced Raising Canes before, and others who wanted to see what the hype was all about.

“We’ve had our food truck out in the community this week and so we’ve had so many people excited to see us,” Boldus added. “For those who have never been, you can expect the most tender chicken fingers you’ve ever had with the best special secret sauce and garlic Texas toast that will blow your mind.”

Unsure of what to get? Bodldus offers a simple solution.

“Definitely a box combo so that you can try everything we have on the menu!”

Raising Canes is located at 2525 Gulf to Bay Blvd, Clearwater, FL 33765. The restaurant offers both dine-in and drive-through options and is open from 10 AM until midnight Sunday – Thursday and 1 AM on Friday and Saturday.

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Tim Giuliani Elected to International Chamber of Commerce General Council

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Orlando, Fla. – Orlando Economic Partnership (the Partnership) President and CEO Tim Giuliani has been elected to the World Chambers Federation (WCF) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) General Council. Representing more than 1,400 chambers from around the world, this year’s Council is comprised of one of the most diverse cadres of chamber leaders in its history, reflecting WCF’s commitment to advancing regional and gender diversity.

“This is much more than simply a professional honor,” said Giuliani. “This recognition further reinforces Orlando’s reputation as a global leader in economic development and highlights how our mission of advancing Broad-based Prosperity® aligns with WCF’s objective to elevate and empower businesses to be leading players in tackling our most pressing issues. I look forward to sharing our region’s best practices and vision for inclusive growth with my fellow members to show how we all can drive an impactful future for communities everywhere.”

ICC is the institutional representative of more than 45 million companies in over 100 countries with a mission to enable business to secure peace, prosperity, and opportunity for all and ensure business work for everyone, every day, everywhere. Through a unique mix of advocacy, solutions and standard setting, the organization promotes international trade, responsible business conduct and a global approach to regulation in addition to providing market-leading dispute resolution services. Its members include many of the world’s leading companies, SMEs, business associations and local chambers of commerce.

The Partnership has a long history of supporting the Orlando region’s business community. Through its business development efforts, the Partnership works to market the Orlando region as an ideal location for successful and innovative businesses to scale and success while also growing the diversity of the regional economy by providing complimentary services to expanding businesses to achieve a soft and welcoming landing in the business community. The Partnership’s programs and initiatives support our region’s existing businesses by driving regional investment, catalyzing regional leadership and helping to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

In collaboration with ICC, the WCF provides all the tools to support Chambers and MSMEs, connecting chambers worldwide to develop and reinforce our chamber community. Chamber leaders from local, regional, national and transnational chambers were eligible to run for the General Council, each member serving a three-year term with the opportunity to run twice. The final composition of the Council sees representation from all parts of membership worldwide. It includes nine representatives from the Americas, thirteen from the Africa and Middle East region, nine from Asia-Pacific and twelve from Europe.

“We are proud of the level of enthusiasm and support of our members who showed interest in serving on the ICC WCF General Council,” said WCF Chairman Nicolás Uribe. “We have successfully brought together one of the most diverse and inclusive Councils in our long history, and I look forward to working with all members to strengthen the WCF and the wider chamber community.”

The new members of the WCF Executive Council are as follows:

Mr Tim Giuliani, President and CEO, Orlando Economic Partnership (USA)

Mr Marcelo Elizondo, Director – prosecretary, Argentina Chamber of Commerce and Services (Argentina)

Mr Andrew McKellar, CEO, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Australia)

Mr Olivier Willocx, Chief Executive Officer, Brussels Enterprises Commerce and Industry (Belgium)

Mrs Maria Teresa Bustamante, President, FIESC Foreign Chamber of Commerce (Brazil)

Mrs Min Yu, General Director, ICC China Secretariat, China Chamber of International Commerce (China)

Mrs Rim Siam, President of Economic Business Women Council, Alexandria Chamber of Commerce (Egypt)

Mr Giorgi Pertaia, President, The Georgian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Georgia)

Mr Volker Treier, Chief Executive of Foreign Trade and Member of the Executive Board, Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (Germany)

Mr Mohammed Khazaee Torshizi, Senior Advisor to President, Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines & Agriculture (Iran)

Mr Kazuo Nishitani, Executive Director, Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Japan)

Mr Seong Woo Lee, Vice President, Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Korea)

Mr Trajan Angeloski, President, Macedonian Chambers of Commerce (Macedonia)

Mrs Tamader Al Thani, Director of International Relations and Chamber Affairs, Qatar Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Qatar)

Mr Mihai Daraban, President, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Romania (Romania)

Mr José Luis Bonet, President, Spain Chamber of Commerce (Spain)

Mr Vincent Subilia, Director General, Geneva Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Services (Switzerland)

Mr Izzet Volkan, Chairman of the Board, Corlu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Turkey)

Mr Gennadiy Chyzhykov, President, The Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Ukraine)

Mrs Shevaun Haviland, Director General, British Chambers of Commerce (United Kingdom)

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Orlando International Airport Pushing 50 Million Passenger Mark, Again

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ORLANDO, FL. – With a strong start to the holiday travel season in November, Orlando International Airport (MCO) came dramatically close to breaking the 50 million passenger barrier, again. Previously, MCO shattered the mark before the pandemic and it was not predicted to fully rebound again until at least 2025.

“We have far exceeded anyone’s expectations for traffic growth at Orlando International Airport,” says Kevin Thibault, Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. “On a rolling 12-month basis, MCO welcomed 49.7 million passengers as of November. If you break that down even further, it is about two days-worth of traffic shy of 50 million.”

For the month of November, MCO was bolstered once again by robust international traffic, which climbed over 85 percent. Those numbers were also affected by the resumption of service by Sunwing to Toronto. Another key factor, MCO recorded the third-lowest domestic air fares in the country from July through September for the top 50 U.S. airports.

Rolling 12-month Traffic Statistics:

  • International traffic is up by triple digits with a 225 percent increase over the same 12-month period in 2021 with 5,352,825 total international passengers.
  • Domestic traffic climbed 21.04 percent year-over-year to 44,350,955 passengers at MCO.
  • Combined, overall traffic at MCO for the 12-month rolling total was up 29.82 percent to 49,703,780 passengers.

November 2022 Traffic Statistics:

  • International traffic climbed 85.35 percent with a total of 466,169 international arrivals and departures.
  • Domestic passenger traffic was up 3.83 percent on 3,772,635 total travelers for the month.
  • Combined, traffic was up 9.11 percent with a grand total of 4,238,804 arrivals and departures at MCO.

Traffic Summary Report

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