prison_paycheck

They’re behind bars, but you’re still paying their “salaries.”

State and federal officials say inmates across the country continue to collect millions each year in fraudulent unemployment benefits — often the result of oversight — with the most recent case in Pennsylvania, where more than 1,000 people collected benefits while behind bars.

Pennsylvania officials said this week the fraud occurred in county prisons because they failed to implement a system of cross-checking the Social Security numbers of benefit applicants, like they did with inmates in their state and federal prisons.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett said his administration is correcting the problem. But the 1,162 inmates had already collected about $334 every week for more than four months, costing taxpayers roughly $7 million.

The state labor department said detecting the fraud is more difficult now that benefit checks — once intercepted in inmates’ mail — have largely been replaced with direct deposits to bank accounts. And the biweekly phone calls to renew benefits can be made by a friend or relative at home.

Overall unemployment fraud is now at 2.85 percent, according to the Labor Department. The agency doesn’t have a specific number for fraud payments but said overall improper payments cost taxpayers $4.9 billion from July 2011 through June 2012, the agency’s most recent reporting period.

The problem is hardly isolated to Pennsylvania. The states with the highest fraud rate over that period were Arizona at 9.21 percent; Mississippi at 9.05 percent; Louisiana at 8.29 percent; South Dakota at 5.95 percent; and Pennsylvania and New Mexico tied at 5.22 percent. The total amount of improper payments was roughly $890 million.