ALBANY, Ga. — A former Lee County resident's arrest on unemployment benefit fraud highlights what state officials say is a renewed effort to cut fraud from the benefit program.
Tommy Jefferson III, 30, who currently lives in Duluth according to his arrest warrant, has been charged by the state department of labor with violating Georgia's unemployment security law. Warrants obtained by the Herald contend that while Jefferson was in Smithville, he filed a fraudulent unemployment insurance claim and received nearly $10,000 for a time period in which investigators believe he was gainfully employed.
Jefferson was released on a $3,200 bond on May 17.
Sam Hall, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Labor and Betty Brown, the director of the department's unemployment insurance department, say that their office has become increasingly involved in rooting out and prosecuting if necessary people who they believe are knowingly defrauding the unemployment benefit program.
"We're seeing an increase in cases, but we feel that's mostly because we've stepped out scrutiny of the program," Brown said. "We're much more aware and are more sensitive to fraud today than we were just a few years ago...in 2010 the (U.S.) Department of Labor asked states to step up awareness and aggressively root out fraud."
"It's a big priority for (State labor) Commissioner Butler," Hall said.
Each year, the state of Georgia oversees the payment of more than $800 million each year in unemployment insurance benefit claims, Brown said. If you tack on the emergency extension that Congress has allocated to the states to extend unemployment benefits from the federal level, that number tips over the $1 billion mark.
And yet, according to the stats, only a small number of recipients are believed to be involved in fraud, they say.
Of the 303,738 people who received state unemployment benefits in 2012, 4,580 or 1.5 percent, attempted to defraud the program, Hall says.
"There may be some cases that slip through the cracks, but we're pretty confident that this is an accurate number," Hall said.
The GDOL uses social security numbers to match recipients of unemployment benefits with those who employers are reporting payroll for, Hall said. GDOL has also set up a fraud hotline and anonymous reporting system through their website.
RELATED: Click here to access the GDOL's fraud reporting system.
Despite the fraud, GDOL's first priority is getting the money back, Brown says.
"We give the recipient multiple attempts to pay the money back. We'll work with them, set up a payment plan or do what we have to get the money back before we take legal action," Brown said. "We also have the authority to garnish their federal and state tax returns until the state is paid back."