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Pa. fraud victims get stuck with the bill


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Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
March 3, 2021
Unemployment fraud, plum gig, home audit, open detainer, cancer clusters, crowd control, and windows on the world. Today is Wednesday, all day. 
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The coronavirus pandemic and related recession drove Pennsylvania's unemployment rate to record highs last year and pushed thousands into the state's aging unemployment system almost overnight. Fraudsters were close behind.

Relaxed filing rules — an effort to speed relief to those in need — were quickly exploited as scammers intent on routing money to themselves or intercepting paper checks began fraudulently filing for benefits en masse.

Spotlight PA reports Pennsylvania has seen at least 50,000 claims of unemployment fraud since the pandemic began. And the consequences of that are now being felt by people across the state. 

People like Annette Ravinsky, who immediately reported the error when she received $10,000 in unsolicited benefits and who now finds herself on the hook for federal taxes on that money. Others face tax bills for benefits they did request but never received in all the clerical chaos. 

I am very, very, very angry right now because I did not ask for any of this,” Ravinsky told Spotlight PA. “The state had a responsibility to verify. Now, I am left holding the bag.”

THE CONTEXT: Pennsylvania's unemployment system was in many ways destined to fail in a recession of this magnitude. Plagued by years of underinvestment and overwhelmed by historic levels of new claims, legitimate claimants faced jammed phone lines, unanswered emails, and inaccurate information in their hour of need. 

That underinvestment coupled with loosened filing rules ultimately made fraud harder to prevent, officials say.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, the Department of Labor and Industry is still too inundated by claims to properly help or even track the full extent of the fraud problem, and thousands of apparent victims, like Ravinsky, face bills and fears of being audited.

“It is sort of like the cherry on top of the whole [Pandemic Unemployment Assistance] crisis,” Sharon Dietrich, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, told Spotlight PA. “You don’t get money plus you get screwed with the IRS.”


"The statement that I proposed, and firmly support, strongly rebukes and admonishes Senator Toomey but does not censure."

—State Republican Chairman Lawrence Tabas urging the party to take a softer approach in registering its disapproval of Toomey's pro-impeachment vote, which the party did on Monday
VACCINE UPDATE: More than 2.48 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered to Pennsylvanians as of yesterday, health department adviser Lindsey Mauldin announced, with the state's supply expected to grow as production continues to ramp up. Gov. Tom Wolf says he's waiting for that to happen before getting his first shot, telling reporters, “I don't want to be seen as butting in line." For vaccine providers, check Spotlight PA's map and county-by-county listing.
POST IT: This shot of the Lehigh Valley sky got us yearning for a road trip. Thanks, @hurleyhurley! Send us your hidden gems (or snow pictures!), use the hashtag #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us at @spotlightpennsylvania.

QUIET NOD: The Pennsylvania Senate's top Republican has quietly appointed the spouse of a colleague to a coveted spot on the state’s Gaming Control Board, the same increasingly seen as a lucrative landing ground for the state's politically connected. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) told Spotlight PA he named the wife of Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) to the post, one carrying a $145,000 annual salary, because of her law enforcement background. 

NEW INQUIRY: House Republicans want an investigation into how the Wolf administration handled COVID-19 cases in the nursing and personal care homes that account for half of Pennsylvania's COVID-19 death toll. USA Today's Capitol Bureau reports House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) plans to request a formal House Government Oversight Committee investigation when the chamber reconvenes March 15. Wolf's office says the administration simply followed the guidance of federal officials.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM: A Berks County detention center for migrant families is now empty after years of activists calling for it to be permanently closed. But The Inquirer reports that while ICE is re-evaluating the way it uses such facilities, the one in Bern Township is far from shuttered. “At any moment they could bring in new families, and the cycle could start all over again," advocate Jasmine Rivera told the paper.

HAZARDOUS WASTE: Bone cancer clusters in the most heavily fracked county in Pennsylvania prompted the state to commission a $3 million study into whether natural gas drilling played a role, The New Yorker reports. Now the scope of that study is coming into focus, and experts, lawmakers, advocates, and stricken families warn that a failure to directly examine the dangers of radioactive fracking waste could be costly.

CROWD CONTROL: Professional sports teams cheered Gov. Tom Wolf's easing of statewide gathering rules on Monday and eagerly upped their attendance. For some small businesses, though, the new limits remain cost prohibitive. “Fifteen percent capacity doesn’t allow us to put on events,” marketing director Anna Vazquez told PennLive. “We basically can’t open until it’s at 50 percent.”


ON THE HOUSE: The home of Black suffragist and civil rights activist Daisy Lampkin is still standing in Pittsburgh's Hill District. It's also standing across town at the Carnegie Science Center, where an eight-inch model of it has been added to the center's beloved, century-old Miniature Railroad & Village. Atlas Obscura has the story behind the tiny building paying tribute to the "larger-than-life civil rights leader."

'READY FOR THE WORLD': Mariah Jones was six years old and living in a Pittsburgh women's shelter when her mother took a class that became an inflection point for the family. Now 18, Jones is a high school senior, mutli-instrumentalist, and budding astrophysicist who's headed to Vassar on a full ride this fall. “Nothing will stop me. I’m ready for the world,” she told the Post-Gazette.

UNDERGROUND MUSIC: What was Ozzy Osbourne doing inside a former limestone mine in Butler County? As the Beaver County Times explains, the site is now a highly secured storage facility for physical and digital assets, including original musical recordings. It's used for safekeeping by federal agencies, Fortune 1000 companies, and, apparently, the Prince of Darkness himself. 

TOW ZONE: When Greg Rich Jr. of Indiana County found the tow truck he used while working one of his first jobs in McKean County 56 years ago, it wasn't what he remembered. So Rich did the obvious if not commonplace thing: He took the rundown, ancient-looking vehicle and turned it into a pristine and national award-winning specimen, the Indiana Gazette reports.

TAKE 5: Window monotony is very real in this age of remote work and social distancing. Luckily, strangers all over the world have recorded videos of their views to help break up the monotony — and you can return the favor.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag.

Yesterday's answer: Evolution

Congrats to our daily winners: Mary Ellen T., Craig W., Beth T., Anna T., Al M., Becky C., Irene R., Susan D., Dixie S., Jessica K., Bette G., Karen W., Jill G., Anna H., Neil W., Yvette R., Maureen G., Neal W., Joan S., Carol D., Joe R., Heidi B., Dennis M., Joel S., Bill C., Jill A., Elizabeth W., Chris W., David I., Gloria G., Sue B., Darcy M., Mark O., Suzanne S., Mary Kay M., David W., Paul H., Christine M., Rick D., Christopher R., Kim C., Dianne K., Ron P., Donna W., George S., Tom M., Patricia R., Theodore W., Bob R., Jill K., and Anne R.
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