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Lawmakers look to curb unemployment fraud

Published Feb. 2, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — A House panel on Monday unanimously approved a measure aimed at cracking down on unemployment fraud based on identity theft.

House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Frank Artiles said he'd been a victim of such a crime.

"I actually had my ID stolen, and we had unemployment benefits that were sent to the state (to establish a claim) under my name," the Miami Republican said. "This is rampant throughout the nation, as well as in the state of Florida."

Artiles' subcommittee approved the measure (HB 1017), filed by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, who said it would save millions of dollars for Florida taxpayers.

"Over the years, (the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity) has begun receiving reports that criminals were turning to unemployment insurance — in our state called reemployment assistance — as a new front for identity theft-based fraud," La Rosa told the panel.

A special unit within the Department of Economic Opportunity has detected and prevented more than 146,000 fraudulent claims totaling $603 million since its inception in 2014, according to the agency.

La Rosa's bill takes several steps to beef up enforcement and penalties for cyber-crimes centered on public-benefits fraud.

It would give the Department of Economic Opportunity access to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' database of driver's licenses — including photos and signatures — to validate claims for reemployment assistance.

It would increase penalties for people who fraudulently apply for unemployment benefits. The penalties would go from one year to five years for a first offense and would be 10 years for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third offense. Also, the bill would amend the definition of "racketeering activity" to include unemployment-benefits fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt (RICO) Organization Act.

Monday was the first time the department-backed bill has been heard in committee. La Rosa removed parts of the bill that sought to allow the department to hire sworn law-enforcement officers and recover overpayments by garnishing wages.

"The department will continue to seek criminal investigators in its budget and will continue to build cases statewide with local law enforcement," La Rosa said.

A Senate version of the bill (SB 1216), filed by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has been sent to four committees.