News Briefs 3/1/2021 | Briefs

Fraud overwhelms pandemic-related unemployment programs

COLUMBUS, Ohio | With the floodgates set to open on another round of unemployment aid, states are being hammered with a new wave of fraud as they scramble to update security systems and block scammers who already have siphoned billions of dollars from pandemic-related jobless programs.

The fraud is fleecing taxpayers, delaying legitimate payments and turning thousands of Americans into unwitting identity theft victims. Many states have failed to adequately safeguard their systems, and a review by The Associated Press finds that some will not even publicly acknowledge the extent of the problem.

The massive sham springs from prior identity theft from banks, credit rating agencies, health care systems and retailers. Fraud perpetrators, sometimes in China, Nigeria or Russia, buy stolen personal identifying information on the dark web and use it to flood state unemployment systems with bogus claims.

The U.S. Justice Department is investigating unemployment fraud by “transnational criminal organizations, sophisticated domestic actors, and individuals across the United States,” said Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the department’s criminal division.

‘Not a good idea:’ Experts concerned about pope trip to Iraq

VATICAN CITY | Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.

No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.

But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.

Supreme Court could put new limits on voting rights lawsuits

WASHINGTON | Eight years after carving the heart out of a landmark voting rights law, the Supreme Court is looking at putting new limits on efforts to combat racial discrimination in voting.

The justices are taking up a case about Arizona restrictions on ballot collection and another policy that penalizes voters who cast ballots in the wrong precinct.

The high court’s consideration comes as Republican officials in the state and around the country have proposed more than 150 measures, following last year’s elections, to restrict voting access that civil rights groups say would disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic voters.

A broad Supreme Court ruling would make it harder to fight those efforts in court. Arguments are set for Tuesday via telephone, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Spacewalking astronauts prep station for new solar wings

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Spacewalking astronauts ventured out Sunday to install support frames for new, high-efficiency solar panels arriving at the International Space Station later this year.

NASA’s Kate Rubins and Victor Glover put the first set of mounting brackets and struts together, then bolted them into place next to the station’s oldest and most degraded solar wings. But the work took longer than expected, and they barely got started on the second set before calling it quits.

Rubins will finish the job during a second spacewalk later this week.

Some upset in Cyprus over ‘satanic’ Eurovision song choice

NICOSIA, Cyprus | A man has been charged with uttering threats and causing a disturbance after barging onto the grounds of Cyprus’ public broadcaster to protest what he said was the country’s “blasphemous” entry into this year’s Eurovision song contest, police said Sunday.

Police told The Associated Press the man, who hasn’t been named, was released after being charged with four counts, including being verbally abusive.

Police said witnesses to Saturday’s incident told investigators the man verbally accosted employees outside the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation’s news department. He was apparently upset that the broadcaster had selected the song “El Diablo” (“The Devil”) performed by Greek singer Elena Tsagrinou to represent Cyprus, since he said it was as an affront to Christianity.

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