What do unemployment benefits and a trip to Costa Rica have in common?  Absolutely nothing, of course – unless you’re the Manchester, Missouri, man who allegedly received $44,000 in fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits and then used it to help defray the costs of a vacation, according to an article on STLToday.com.

The man’s case is one instance the article describes in chronicling efforts by the states of Missouri and Illinois to root out potential unemployment fraud.  “’If we find someone who is thumbing their nose at the system, certainly that individual is higher up on the priority list than someone who is simply making an honest mistake,’” said a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

And finding the fraudsters is the first step.  The states check names of people claiming benefits against a “national list of new hires” to identify fraud and often reach out to former employers to see if they are still working there.  They also rely on reports from neighbors or family members who suspect fraud.

The key challenge is recovering the money.  In 2010, the article reports, Missouri identified $23 million in fraudulent payments and recovered $11.4 million. (That’s great, but that’s only half the money.  What about the rest of it?)  In Illinois, the state identified $34.9 million in fraud and recovered $23 million. (Again, that’s still nearly $12 million that’s missing.)  To recover taxpayers’ cash, the states take multiple approaches ranging from sending a “firmly worded letter” (Not enough. Let’s do more!) to recovering funds through the state tax system or resorting to prosecution.  Missouri referred 61 unemployment cases for prosecution in August alone.  (That’s what I’m talking about!)

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