An estimated $163 billion from pandemic unemployment benefits were misspent or stolen

Sareena Brown-Thomas had just arrived home from her shift as a custodian when she noticed an envelope in the mail from the D.C. government. Bearing her name, address and the last four digits of her Social Security number, the letter inside said she had been awarded unemployment benefits — a problem, she later recalled, since she had never applied for them.

The 32-year-old soon notified her bosses, believing last summer that she had put the matter to rest. But the real trouble wouldn’t start until September: When Brown-Thomas did actually find herself out of a job, she couldn’t get the financial support she needed. Mired in bureaucratic battles, she said she faced a months-long struggle just to prove her identity to the city.

“I’m still trying to figure out how to get a lot of stuff paid,” Brown-Thomas, who warred at one point with D.C. over her eligibility, said in an interview this spring. “It was so easy for them to use my Social Security number to get unemployment.”

Brown-Thomas is part of a sprawling community of victims caught up in a massive series of attacks targeting the nation’s generous coronavirus aid programs. The more than $5 trillion approved since the start of the pandemic has become a wellspring for criminal activity, allowing fraudsters to siphon money away from hard-hit American workers and businesses who needed the help most.