Stopping COVID-19 Benefits Fraud Using OSINT

March 25, 2022

The increasing use of social media, mobile apps, the deep and dark web has led to significant growth of online benefits fraud. In recent years, government programs have been targeted for high volume online fraud by bad actors. Online benefits fraud has moved beyond simple schemes into more complex and transnational efforts to subvert funds from deserving people, often leveraging Fraud as a Service (FaaS) to gain access to government programs.

Benefits Fraud: COVID-19 Relief Funds Targeted

Over the last two years, a new government benefit became the target for high volume benefits fraud by online bad actors: COVID-19 Relief Funds. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the government authorized historic levels of funding for federal benefit programs to provide relief to individuals, and businesses.  With this unprecedented event came an opportunity for fraud rings and others to exploit this new stream of money for government aid programs.

Response to COVID-19 Related Unemployment Insurance (UI) Benefits Fraud

As COVID-19 Relief funds were rolled out, unemployment insurance (UI) became a primary target of fraudsters and international organized criminal groups.  Consequently, a May 2021 report commissioned by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) on Best Practices and Lessons Learned from the Administration of Pandemic-Related Unemployment Benefits Programs underscored the threat risk posed by noting the “unprecedented infusion of federal pandemic UI funds provided individuals and organized criminal groups a high-value target to exploit” and the level of fraud posed “a significant threat to the integrity of the nation’s UI program.” The report went on to scope out the size of the fraud – potentially “tens of billions of dollars of improper and fraudulent payments.”

In addition to the PRAC and other oversight by the Inspector General community to curb this benefits fraud, the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced Associate Deputy Attorney General Kevin Chambers will serve as the Director for COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement and lead the department’s criminal and civil enforcement efforts to combat COVID-19 related benefits fraud. The government created a mechanism to hold bad actors accountable. The next step is leveraging tools to detect the fraud before the funds are lost to these bad actors.

Government Agencies Need Tools to Mitigate a High Volume of Benefits Fraud

The good news is that oversight and law enforcement officials can also use open-source investigative solutions that access the open, deep and dark web to identify organized crime rings and investigate this government fraud. Given the size of the benefits fraud problem – just in UI alone – open-source intelligence (OSINT) tools are a necessary part of the Government’s tool kit to enhance and secure the integrity of government benefits programs. For example, the May 2021 report commissioned by the PRAC noted that “Tactical innovations for risk management include novel vendor engagement and embrace of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) for fraud discovery” and utilizing “intelligence feeds to monitor the dark web for fraudster chatter about tactics and targets for UI fraud.” This integrated approach is the right one to detect and eliminate fraud from these programs.

Detecting high volume benefits fraud like COVID-19 Relief Fraud is key to reducing the overall impact on our economy. Applied proactively, methods to automate AI driven search and alerting methods capabilities can identify fraud services – advertised on the dark web or perpetuated through other online platforms.  Investigators responsible for pursuing criminal cases should have access to advanced tools that provide visibility across all layers of the internet – both local and global – to identify fraudulent activity. They must also use alerts based on advanced pattern identification, leveraging keywords, hashtags and emojis. This type of proactive approach can stop fraud before it occurs, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in lost funds.

OSINT Technologies Detect Benefits Fraud

Open source and publicly available information (PAI) resources, combined with AI and other analytics, reveal connections, specific threats to programs and, best of all, support the overall efficiency and productivity of law enforcement investigations.  Analysts and investigators using automated AI and OSINT analytics, can identify bad actor network within minutes as opposed to lengthy manual research the web for bad actors.

Whether it’s one bad actor facilitating fraud against one government benefits program, or a large-scale cyber fraud ring operating as a fraud service, these two separate fraud schemes can be potentially detected (and stopped) using OSINT capabilities that combines access to the vast data resources with artificial intelligence (AI), identity resolution, automation and other analytical techniques.  This approach is critical to rooting out high volume fraud before it occurs.

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