Barber Luis Garcia walks out of the Castillo Barbershop where a sign "Now Hiring" is displayed, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Lawrence, Mass. Credit: Elise Amendola | AP

The state’s Department of Labor canceled almost as many false unemployment claims last week as it received in new claims, it announced on Thursday. The agency is still reviewing thousands more of suspected false unemployment claims worth millions of dollars.

A countrywide unemployment fraud scheme hit Maine around three weeks ago, with scammers using stolen identity information to take advantage of increased benefit payouts being offered through the federal stimulus bill Congress passed in March.

While the total amount of fraud is unknown, the department said it canceled about 6,500 initial claims for unemployment and 11,500 weekly certifications last week. Meanwhile, the state received about 6,700 initial claims for unemployment benefits, the lowest level the state has seen since the coronavirus outbreak began in March.

A Thursday announcement from the Department of Labor also noted the agency is currently reviewing 14,700 claims worth $49 million for potential fraud. Some 2,200 false claims the department canceled two weeks ago before processing them are estimated to be worth $13 million, according to the labor department.

The beleaguered state agency has said the false claims could be skewing the overall employment rate. To combat the fraud, it slowed down its processing of claims — a measure initially put in place as thousands struggled to apply for and receive benefits — and paused benefit payouts for 48 hours.

The department had received 17,000 total reports of fraud as of last week, but the release notes some of those could be duplicates if the employee and employer both report the incident.

Maine residents filed about 101,000 continuing weekly claims last week to keep receiving unemployment, according to department numbers. The state has paid out $720 million in benefits since March 15.

Those claims under review show up on the department’s portal with a paid-out date of “9/9/9999.”

Imposter fraud typically occurs when criminals use stolen personal information leaked in previous data breaches of outside companies and organizations to place unemployment claims under a worker’s name. The labor department is investigating reported fraud with state and federal law enforcement agencies.

To prevent valid claims from being canceled, the department is working with 16 Maine Department of Corrections officers to review documentation. It has reinstated over 3,500 canceled claims since the fraud was detected, according to the release.

Those who believe their claims have been falsely canceled are asked to provide two types of identification, one of which must be a photo ID, along with a photo of themselves. That could include a drivers license; passport or military ID; a social security card; a birth certificate; or a recent utility bill that shows your name and current address.