An Inside Job

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Unemployment claim form on an office table.

A Detroit, Mich., woman is facing charges for defrauding the state of Michigan all from the comfort of her couch. Brandi Hawkins is charged with wire fraud and money laundering. She is also accused of defrauding the state of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) out of millions of dollars. Hawkins, who worked for the UIA as a contract employee, was entrusted to review unemployment claims. (Sounds like an inside job to me.)

Hawkins was hired in April in response to the overwhelming increase in unemployment applications due to COVID-19. She worked as an unemployment insurance examiner from her home in Detroit using a state issued computer. The job was to review, process, and verify the validity of unemployment benefit claims. (The fraudulent behavior she should have reviewed was her own.)

Despite being informed that her services were no longer needed in June, Hawkins illegally maintained her access to the Michigan UIA system for a few weeks after the termination of her employment. (Her access should have been cut off on her last day.) She then used her login credentials to access over 400 benefits claims and allegedly verified fake claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

More than $2 million dollars was allegedly released by Hawkins to accounts that were flagged for fraud or did not qualify for benefits. Most of these accounts had notes stating not to pay the claims due to suspected fraud and to refer them to the fraud control unit.

Some of the funds were released to fake accounts that were traced back to Hawkins. She is accused of using some of this money to buy herself expensive electronics, handbags, and jewelry. (It’s ironic that she took a job meant to help those in need, but only ended up helping herself.)

Investigators seized cell phones, tablets, designer bags, and other luxury items from her home in addition to $238,000 in cash. Receipts for thousands of dollars in designer clothes and jewelry were also found in addition to several Bank of America debit cards. (I don’t think a new designer bag warrants stealing money from struggling families who are trying to keep food on the table.)

There is a possibility Hawkins did not work alone. As soon as the funds she fraudulently released were dispersed to her account, they were immediately transferred to other bank accounts under various names. Investigators are still investigating those accounts and the names associated with them.

While Hawkins is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, she could face up to 20 years behind bars if convicted. (I wonder if the shopping spree was worth it. Uh, no.) This case is a prime example of fraudsters exploiting those who are genuinely disadvantaged for their own financial gain. 

The public is encouraged to remain vigilant by being aware of the red flags that indicate identity theft and other frauds. The FBI has a string of articles on their website detailing the most popular scams, particularly recent schemes trying to exploit the coronavirus pandemic.

Today’s Fraud of the Day comes from an article, “Michigan UIA contract worker accused of stealing $2 million in unemployment funds,” published by Fox17 on July 23, 2020.

DETROIT, Mich. — A Detroit woman faces federal charges tonight including wire fraud and money laundering accused of stealing more than $2 million in unemployment benefits.

Investigators say she did it all from the comfort of her home.

The shocking part is that she worked for the UIA as a contract employee. Documents allege she used that access to steal millions and buy electronics, jewelry and luxury designer handbags.

 

 

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Larry Benson, Senior Director of Strategic Alliances, LexisNexis Risk Solutions - Government

Larry Benson is responsible for developing strategic partnerships and solutions for the government vertical. His expertise focuses on how government programs are defrauded by criminal groups, and the approaches necessary to prevent them from succeeding.

Mr. Benson has 30 years of experience in sales and business development. Before joining LexisNexis® Risk Solutions, he spent 12 years founding and managing two software technology startups. During the 1990s he spent 10 years as a Regional Director helping to grow a New England-based technology company from 300 employees to 7,000. He started his career with Martin Marietta Aerospace working on laser guided weapons and day/night vision systems.

A sought-after speaker and accomplished writer, Mr. Benson is the principal author of “Fraud of the Day,” a website dedicated to educating government officials about how criminals are defrauding government programs. He has co-authored WTF? Where’s the Fraud? How to Unmask and Stop Identity Fraud’s Drain on Our Government, and Data Personified, How Fraud is Changing the Meaning of Identity.

Benson holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from Albright College, and earned two graduate degrees – a Master of Business Administration from Florida Institute of Technology, and a Master of Science in Engineering from Lehigh University.