Pandemic Unemployment Fraud Estimate Rises to $45.6 Billion

A federal watchdog investigating the distribution of pandemic relief funds has tripled its estimate of the amount of money paid out in unemployment insurance that can be attributed to certain forms of fraud.

The watchdog, the office of the inspector general of the Labor Department, previously attributed about $16 billion to duplicate payments or payments made to dead people, individuals with suspicious email accounts or federal prisoners. The office now says the federal government probably made $45.6 billion in such payments.

Investigations by the inspector general’s office have led to criminal charges against more than 1,000 people accused of fraudulently receiving unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic, the office said in a statement on Thursday.

“Hundreds of billions in pandemic funds attracted fraudsters seeking to exploit the U.I. program — resulting in historic levels of fraud and other improper payments,” Larry D. Turner, the inspector general, said in the statement.

The investigations cover payments made from March 2020 to April 2022, when the federal government sent out a flood of relief money to businesses and individuals, intending to bolster the economy as coronavirus cases ran rampant. The aid included $3.1 trillion that President Donald J. Trump approved in 2020, followed by a $1.9 trillion package that President Biden signed into law in 2021.

There was so much unemployment fraud that even after two years of work, federal investigators are just getting started in dealing with it. Hundreds of people are working on fraud cases across the offices of 21 inspectors general. The F.B.I., the Secret Service, the Postal Inspection Service and the Internal Revenue Service are also looking into the issue.

Officials have said the fraud is so far-reaching that some small-dollar thefts may never be prosecuted. Last month, Mr. Biden signed bills doubling the statute of limitations for some pandemic-related fraud to 10 years.

“My message to those cheats out there is this: You can’t hide. We’re going to find you,” Mr. Biden said during the signing at the White House.