Prisoners collect unemployment benefits through online fraud

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by Scott Noll / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on February 22, 2013 at 11:48 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 22 at 11:48 PM

HOUSTON - The I-Team uncovered millions of dollars in unemployment payments going to prisoners.

“If you’re in jail, why should you get unemployment benefits?” Patrina Joffrion said.

It’s the question, with a simple answer. Inmates shouldn’t. That’s because the Texas Workforce Commission says in order to collect unemployment, you must be able to work.

“Not allowed, but it’s happening? Certainly, we have cases situations where we have inmates that have filed claims situations like Tamika Scales,” Lisa Givens, with the TWC, said.

According to court records, she pleaded guilty to mail fraud Aug. 7, 2008. Ten days later, while awaiting sentencing, investigators say she applied for unemployment, and kept on collecting because the state didn’t have a system to check federal prison records.

Payments continued as Scales served her time behind bars.

So how could inmates collect the money?

Surely the state would notice if unemployment checks were being sent to jails? Well it turns out, in this electronic age, unemployment payments have gone checkless with the money direct deposited into a bank account or onto a debit card.

At the same time, the state has been making it easier and easier to apply for unemployment without ever sitting down with anyone face-to-face.

“We receive information over the phone sometimes, online so people can provide false information very readily,” Givens said.

Which is why watchdogs like Tom Smitty Smith, with Public Citizen Texas, says the state has to do a better job watching.

“If the guy in the cell next to you is getting unemployment benefits, why wouldn’t you do the same trick?” Smith said. “It’s money in your pocket for doing nothing.”

Maybe that’s why we found more than 1,700 cases of inmates collecting unemployment totaling nearly $3.4 million in fraud.

Despite that, Scales is the only inmate convicted of the crime in the last four years. Not good enough say taxpayers.

“One case? C’mon man. Are you kidding me?” Raymond Hall said.

They say with so many ways to game the system, it’s time the state get serious about putting an end to these prison paydays.

“Yeah, it’s irritating because I’m one of the truthful ones and it’s not easy. It’s terrible,” Patrina Joffrion said.

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