BOSTON — The state's pandemic-ravaged unemployment system is still under attack by fraudsters and criminal gangs who continue to file bogus claims.

Of more than 1.2 million new claims for traditional state unemployment benefits submitted between April 2020 and January, at least 261,000 were denied because they were deemed ineligible, according to the latest data from the state Department of Unemployment Assistance.

The fraud has been even more widespread in the federally backed Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which was created to cover jobless workers who don’t qualify for traditional benefits, such as those who are self-employed.

More than 66% of the 946,000 claims filed under that program since April 2020 have been rejected because they were deemed ineligible, according to the state agency.

To date, the agency says it has lost about $687,000 in payments to claims that were determined to be fraudulent or potentially fraudulent. The department has recovered more than $252 million from jobless payments later deemed ineligible.

Overall, the agency said it has blocked more than $19.2 billion worth of fraudulent payouts since April 2020.

Massachusetts and other states have been targeted by international gangs making large numbers of illegitimate claims using financial information stolen from commercial data breaches.

Meanwhile, state officials say they've become aware of recent "phishing" scams where unemployment recipients get text messages directing them to enter their login and password on a website that looks similar to the state's.

The Department of Unemployment Assistance, which oversees the program, has hired a forensic accounting company to investigate fraud and help recover money.

"DUA is working with state and federal law enforcement agencies, municipalities and dedicated constituent service personnel to address the national unemployment fraud scheme and recover fraudulent payments," a spokesperson for the state agency said in a statement.

But the agency said added layers of security may delay payments for some jobless workers.

The state also refers major fraud cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Gov. Charlie Baker has said the ongoing fraud makes it hard for people whose names have been illegally used if they lose their jobs. In those cases, legitimate claims are exposed to greater scrutiny, dragging out the process.

The state has paid out nearly $16 billion in state and federal jobless claims since the coronavirus outbreak began last March, according to state data.

Overall, new claims for jobless benefits in Massachusetts are receding. Last week, there were 15,608 new claims for state unemployment benefits, a decline of 2,188 from the previous week, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Massachusetts' unemployment rate dropped to 7.4% in December, from its highest-in-the-nation mark of 16.1% in July.

To report fraud or get help with a claim, call the state's unemployment hotline at 1-877-626-6800.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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