Fraudsters likely stole $45.6 billion from the United States’ unemployment insurance program during the COVID-19 pandemic by applying tactics like using Social Security numbers of deceased individuals, a federal watchdog said on Thursday.
About a year ago, nearly $16 billion in potential fraud had been identified. The report issued Thursday by the inspector general for the U.S. Labor Department identified “an increase of $29.6 billion in potentially fraudulent payments.”
The scammers had allegedly filed billions of dollars in unemployment claims in many states simultaneously while some of them got benefits using the identities of dead people and prisoners who were not eligible for aid. They also relied on suspicious emails that were hard to trace, the watchdog said in its report.
“We determined 205,766 Social Security numbers of deceased persons were used to file claims for UI (unemployment insurance) pandemic benefits,” the report added.
The United States’ jobless aid program started in 2020 in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department tapped federal prosecutor Kevin Chambers to lead the department’s efforts to help investigate fraudsters who used the pandemic as an excuse to bilk government assistance programs.
In May 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland launched a COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force. The United States is probing many fraud cases pegged to U.S. government assistance programs, such as the Paycheck Protection Program, unemployment insurance and Medicare.
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors charged 47 defendants, who were accused of stealing $250 million from a government aid program that was supposed to feed children in need during the pandemic.
A Minnesota non-profit organization, Feeding Our Future, was accused of orchestrating the plot. Its founder, Aimee Bock, denied wrongdoing.
In March, the Justice Department said it had brought over 1,000 cases of crimes involving jobless benefits during the pandemic.
Monkeypox to be renamed mpox: WHO
Monkeypox is to be renamed mpox, the World Health Organization announced Monday, in a bid to avoid stigmatisation stemming from the existing name.
Monkeypox received its name because the virus was originally identified in monkeys kept for research in Denmark in 1958, but the disease is found in a number of animals, and most frequently in rodents.
A surge in monkeypox infections has been reported since early May among men who have sex with men, outside the African countries where it has long been endemic.
“When the outbreak of monkeypox expanded earlier this year, racist and stigmatising language online, in other settings and in some communities was observed and reported to WHO,” the UN health agency said in a statement.
“Following a series of consultations with global experts, WHO will begin using a new preferred term ‘mpox’ as a synonym for monkeypox. Both names will be used simultaneously for one year while ‘monkeypox’ is phased out.”
The disease was first discovered in humans in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the spread among humans since then mainly limited to certain West and Central African nations.
But in May, cases of the disease, which causes fever, muscular aches and large boil-like skin lesions, began spreading rapidly around the world.
The WHO triggered its highest level of alarm on July 24, classifying it as a public health emergency of international concern, alongside COVID-19.
More than 80,000 cases
Some 81,107 confirmed cases and 55 deaths have been reported to the WHO this year, from 110 countries.
Where the given dataset was known, 97 percent were men, with a median age of 34 years old; 85 percent identified as men who had sex with men, according to the WHO’s case dashboard.
The 10 most affected countries globally are: the United States (29,001), Brazil (9,905), Spain (7,405), France (4,107), Colombia (3,803), Britain (3,720), Germany (3,672), Peru (3,444), Mexico (3,292), and Canada (1,449). They account for 86 percent of the global number of cases.
A total of 588 cases were reported last week. Over the past four weeks, 92 percent of cases were reported from the Americas and six percent from Europe.
Seventy-one countries have reported no new cases in the past 21 days.
It is down to the WHO to assign names to diseases, as it did with Covid-19.
The WHO announced in August it was looking for a new name for the virus, seeking suggestions from experts, countries and the public.
According to WHO best practices in disease naming adopted in 2015, names should aim to minimise unnecessary negative impact.
Considerations include scientific appropriateness, pronounceability, and usability in different languages.
“WHO will adopt the term mpox in its communications, and encourages others to follow these recommendations, to minimise any ongoing negative impact of the current name,” it said.
The one-year transition is to avoid confusion caused by changing the name in the midst of a global outbreak.
World’s largest volcano erupts in Hawaii
The world’s largest active volcano burst into life for the first time in 40 years, spewing lava and hot ash Monday in a spectacular display of nature’s fury by Mauna Loa in Hawaii.
Rivers of molten rock could be seen high up on the volcano, venting huge clouds of steam and smoke at the summit on Big Island, and sparking warnings the situation could change rapidly.
Pressure has been building at Mauna Loa for years, according to the United States Geological Survey, which reported the eruption could be seen from 45 miles (72 kilometers) away, in the town of Kona the west coast of Hawaii’s main island.
The eruption, which began shortly before midnight Sunday, was initially contained within the caldera — the concave area at the top of the volcano — but vulcanologists said Monday lava was now escaping from cracks in its side.
“The eruption of Mauna Loa has migrated from the summit to the Northeast Rift Zone where fissures are feeding several lava flows,” the USGS said on its website.
The agency said there was currently no threat to people living below the eruption zone, but warned that the volcano was volatile.
“Based on past events, the early stages of a Mauna Loa rift zone eruption can be very dynamic, and the location and advance of lava flows can change rapidly.”
Experts also cautioned that winds could carry volcanic gas and fine ash downslope, as well as Pele’s Hair — the name given to fine strands of volcanic glass formed when lava skeins cool quickly in the air.
Named after Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, the strands can be very sharp and pose potential danger to skin and eyes.
Authorities in Hawaii have not issued any evacuation orders, although the summit area and several roads in the region were closed, and two shelters have been opened as a precaution.
An ashfall advisory has been issued downwind of the volcano, with a light accumulation of ash expected on ships in ocean waters along the Big Island’s southeast.
Vulcanologist Robin George Andrews said the eruption had originally been contained, but was now spreading.
“Oof. Lava is now erupting from fresh vents on the slopes along Mauna Loa’s Northeast Rift Zone, or NERZ. That brings a new hazardous dimension to the eruption,” he wrote on Twitter.
“The fact that it is a hazardous mountain that hasn’t erupted since 1984 — the longest eruptive pause in its recorded history — is why we should all keep an eye on it.”
But Andrews predicted that unless the lava flow rate picks up dramatically, the city of Hilo to the northeast, home to about 44,000 people, “will be okay.”
The largest volcano on Earth by volume, Mauna Loa, whose name means “Long Mountain,” covers half of the Big Island and is larger than the rest of the Hawaiian islands combined.
The volcano’s submarine flanks stretch for miles to an ocean floor that is in turn depressed by Mauna Loa’s great mass — making its summit some 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) above its base, according to the USGS.
One of six active volcanoes on the Hawaiian islands, Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843.
Its most recent eruption, in 1984, lasted 22 days and produced lava flows which reached to within about seven kilometers (four miles) of Hilo.
Kilauea, a volcano on the southeastern flank of Mauna Loa, erupted almost continuously between 1983 and 2019, and a minor eruption there has been ongoing for months.
Great Barrier Reef risks ‘in danger’ World Heritage listing
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be added to a list of “in danger” World Heritage sites, according to UN experts who have warned the fading wonder has been “significantly impacted” by climate change.
A UNESCO-tasked report on Monday said that warming seas and agricultural pollution had put the reef at risk, and that its resilience had been “substantially compromised”.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s premier tourist drawcards, and putting it on the in-danger list could substantially tarnish its international allure.
After intense lobbying, Australia’s previous conservative government managed to keep the reef off the list in the summer of 2021.
The Australian Marine Conservation Society said the reef supported 60,000 jobs and generated Aus$6 billion ($4 billion) in revenue every year.
Australia’s Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek conceded the reef was under threat, but said putting it on UNESCO’s “World Heritage in Danger” list would be a step too far.
“We’ll clearly make the point to UNESCO that there is no need to single the Great Barrier Reef out in this way,” she told reporters.
“If this World Heritage Site is in danger, then most World Heritage Sites around the world are in danger from climate change.”
World Wildlife Fund spokesman Richard Leck said the UNESCO recommendations should be accepted by the government.
“These UNESCO recommendations are a reminder it is our choice to give the world’s most iconic reef the best chance of survival.”
The latest report, from experts at the International Union for Conservation of Nature and UNESCO, acknowledged Australia’s commitment to protecting the reef.
But it found that despite the “unparalleled science and management efforts”, the reef still faced “considerable pressures” linked to climate change and pollution from agricultural runoff.
Australia reported in May that 91 percent of the reef’s coral had been damaged by bleaching after a prolonged summer heatwave.
It was the first time on record the reef had suffered bleaching during a La Nina weather cycle, when cooler ocean temperatures would normally be expected.
Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison was voted out earlier this year in favour of a centre-left government promising greener policies and greater climate action.
A UNESCO spokesperson told AFP that “a constructive dialogue is ongoing with the current government”.
To be included on UNESCO’s world heritage list, a site must have “outstanding universal value”.
A spot on the list usually means boosted tourism, and improved access to funds and scientific expertise.
Only three sites have ever been dropped from the heritage list completely.
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