FILE - Unemployment line

(The Center Square) – More than one million unemployment claims are being investigated for fraud in Arizona, where 1.8 million people have filed initial claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

Claims can be flagged for several reasons, including out-of-state addresses, invalid Social Security numbers, international IP addresses and multiple claims that use the same banking information.

"Criminals worldwide are using phishing scams, personally identifiable information obtained from previous corporate data breaches and other malicious tactics to collect information from individuals across the country, to file for PUA benefits in multiple states," Brett Bezio, deputy press secretary at Arizona Department of Economic Security, told The Center Square.

Because of the investigation, some Arizonans' legitimate claims have been put on hold or gone unanswered. Some say their benefits haven't been paid for as many as nine weeks.

More than $700 million was released to 90,000 claimants last week who were determined eligible for benefits after their cases were reviewed for potential fraud.

Katie Conner, director of media relations for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, said since June, the Arizona Attorney General's office itself has received more than 1,000 criminal complaints related to unemployment insurance fraud.

Fraudulent activity is not only happening in Arizona. With the supplemental unemployment benefit of $600 per week, unemployment systems in states across the country have been a prime target for scammers.

No one was prepared for the havoc the pandemic would wreak on the nation's unemployment systems, but technological maintenance could have helped lessen instances of fraud or made them easier to root out.

"If Arizona had invested in upgrades to DES' outdated computer system, which was known to be an issue, DES could have had a system sophisticated enough to detect fraud without having to freeze more than a million claims for further investigation," Amy Pedotto, executive director of Grand Canyon Institute, told The Center Square. "To date, more than 90,000 claims have been cleared for honest people who simply need unemployment assistance due to the pandemic but were kept waiting because the state neglected DES's technology needs that would allow it to do its job more efficiently."

As of August 26, the Arizona Department of Economic Security has paid more than $10 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 1.17 million Arizonans since the week of March 7.

"With over one million Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims flagged for fraud, the Department has been working closely with data analytics companies, financial institutions, state and federal partners to review these claims and identify those eligible for benefits," Bezio said. "These are complicated programs, and with the unique individual circumstances each claimant has, there are a variety of factors our team needs to assess before claims can be processed and paid. We will continue to prioritize our review of these claims and release payment to eligible claimants in need of this assistance."