PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Thousand of inmates in county jails and state correctional institutions in on a scheme each collected thousands of dollars in pandemic unemployment insurance meant for workers sidelined by COVID-19. On Tuesday, federal and state prosecutors charged the first 33 inmates along with their outside accomplices who allegedly filed the claims.
"They stole taxpayer money. They undermined a safety net that millions have relied on during this crisis," said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
The inmates were those like accused murderer Lamont Wilford, who KDKA first told you about last month.
He's been here the county jail since November but is charged along with his girlfriend Casey Norrick and another outside accomplice who filed the unemployment claim. Though in an intercepted phone call between them, Norrick had misgivings.
U.S. Attorney Scott Brady says 10,000 inmates statewide have filed for more than $100 million in pandemic benefits.
"These 33 defendants represent truly only the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing unemployment fraud on an unprecedented scale," he says.
Brady says Wilford is be no means an outlier. And they have evidence that some 10,000 inmates across the state have filed pandemic unemployment claims, each of them receiving roughly $10,000.
Shapiro said there will be many more charges in the coming weeks and months. Noting how seriously the government takes this kind of fraud, each could face up to 20 additional years in jail and $50 in fines.
"Look, these criminals took advantage of a public health emergency to cash in on the backs of hardworking people in our commonwealth — to rip off a program meant to help everyday Pennsylvanians whose lives were really struggling because of COVID-19," he said.
Now, KDKA first reported this abuse last month, but postal inspectors and corrections officers said they became suspicious of the activity back in June. Sources at a federal level tell KDKA's Andy Sheehan they are tracking it all over the country and the losses could be in the billions of dollars.
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