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Castel makes Lincoln pay for droughts, 56-42

Businesses beware: unemployment fraud on the rise

Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development is asking Hoosier businesses for help in combatting a recent rash of fraudulent unemployment benefit claims.

The Department of Workforce Development oversees and administers unemployment benefits across the state, and they say the coronavirus has led to an unprecedented increase in the number of individuals filing claims to receive benefits.

Too, with new programs designed to support Hoosiers struggling during the pandemic, such as the CARES Act’s Pandemic Unemployment, come new opportunities for criminals to defraud the system.

These are not the crimes of a disgruntled employee who doesn’t want to work. Instead, they are a form of identity theft.

DWD explains these crimes might manifest as someone receiving an overpayment notice on an unemployment insurance claim, though they personally never even filed for unemployment benefits.

Or, perhaps a business discovers claims were filed using the names of their senior-level managers, though the managers are currently still employed.

Chris Pfaff, CEO of the Knox County Development Corp., says that while unemployment fraud is expected to happen from time-to-time, COVID-19 has likely made it easier for criminals to scam the system.

“With the pandemic, and a large number of folks filing for benefits, it’s likely easier for these criminals to jump into the system and make these fraudulent claims,” Pfaff said.

During the first week of December alone, the state saw more than 900 new unemployment claims, a number the state believes to be inflated by fraudulent filings, though they’re not yet sure just how many of the claims are scams.

“In terms of counting claims, we don’t have that data,” said Scott Olson, media director for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

What Olson and Pfaff do know is that fraudulent claims have increased over the past year, and it’s something all states are currently fighting.

“The bottom line is that the state is seeing an increase; It can definitely be found in every county,” said Pfaff.

With fraud cases on the rise across the state, Pfaff is urging local companies to do routine checks of monthly Department of Workforce Development reports.

“If there’s one message I’d like to get out to businesses, it’s that they should scrubbing their unemployment lists closely each month,” he said.

Should a company notice any anomaly or cause for concern, they should report that to the DWD to be investigated.

“Every company needs to be diligent because, the bottom line is, it’s costing them money, and it’s likely no fault of a person who worked there,” Pfaff added.

For more information, or to report unemploy- ment insurance benefit fraud, visit https://www.in.gov/dwd/indiana-un employment/fraud/.

A (second) bicycle for Christmas

Veteran police officer D.J. Halter thought local kids’ Christmas gifts were safe this year after he personally arrested the Grinch in December.

Unfortunately, an 11-year-old girl woke up Monday morning to find her shiny new bicycle missing from her family’s back porch — the lock securing it sat broken, her Christmas wish stolen.

“We locked it up, and the next day it was just gone,” said young Lanie, angry that despite taking care of her new teal Mongoose bicycle, a local Grinch so easily and thoughtlessly snatched it from her.

“It wasn’t some state of the art bike by any means, but we got her a really nice new bike in her favorite color and with pegs,” said Leah Burton, Lanie’s mom. “She loved it, and we were excited to find it.”

When mom and daughter walked out the back door early Monday morning, they found nothing but the busted lock, and Burton quickly called local police to file a report.

“We called and reported it, but I don’t expect them to find it. I just wanted to do everything by the book before we go looking for the bicycle in pawn shops,” Burton said.

This, unfortunately, is not the first time the young Clark Middle School student has lost her wheels. Last summer her bicycle was stolen from her family’s property. So the Christmas gift was extra special.

Shortly after filing the police report, Burton took to social media with a photo of the stolen bicycle, asking area residents to keep an eye out.

The post, which was shared dozens of times, caught the attention of Halter who immediately sprang into action.

“I was having coffee with my dad, scrolling through Facebook and saw it pop up,” said Halter, adding that he felt compelled to help young Lanie because he imagined how difficult it would be to see one of his own children so disappointed.

“I thought about my daughter — about what it would be like if she had walked out and found her bike gone,” said Halter, choked up by the thought of it. “I had to do something.”

Though finding the stolen bicycle itself will be difficult and time consuming, Halter quickly made a call to a friend who is the regional manager of Walmart, asking for an exact replica of Lanie’s bicycle.

He explained that he and a handful of fellow officers wanted to chip in and buy a replacement for her.

When Burton heard what Halter was up to, she was shocked.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was going to take me a couple of months to afford to buy her another one, so I was blown away,” said Burton.

Sadly, the brand and style of bicycle Lanie received for Christmas couldn’t be found.

“We called Walmart in Princeton, Sullivan, Lawrenceville, Evansville and Olney and couldn’t find the one she had,” Halter said.

Even still, Halter insisted Lanie have another bike now while he and 40 other officers continue to pursue the local Grinch who took hers away.

And, in the end, Walmart management wouldn’t accept the officers’ money; instead, they donated the new wheels.

Within hours of the the bike theft, police officers pulled into the State Farm Insurance office at 705 Wheatland Road where Lanie sat doing her e-learning studies as her mom worked nearby.

From the back end of a police cruiser came a new bicycle earmarked just for Lanie.

“We hope you like it,” Halter said, pushing it inside the office building.

Though the smiling faces in the room were masked, the joy could be clearly felt.

“I love it,” she said.

Indiana leaders stress mental health awareness amid pandemic

INDIANAPOLIS — Anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions have become more prevalent among Hoosiers since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the state's top health officials said in calling for renewed attention on mental health resources.

Many of those reporting mental health woes are affected by COVID-19 itself, Jennifer Sullivan, secretary of the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, said during Gov. Eric Holcomb’s weekly briefing Wednesday on the state’s coronavirus response.

That includes dealing with loss and fear, disruption to daily life with recurrent needs for quarantine and isolation, changes to school and work schedules, unexpected illness of friends and family, and disruption to normal social supports.

Cold weather and the holiday season, too, have likely added difficulties for people with existing mental illnesses and those experiencing acute stress, she added.

“The effects of COVID-19 are uncovering or exacerbating existing mental illnesses, minor or severe, that people didn’t know they had,” Sullivan said. “These need to be taken seriously and professional help sought.”

As a way to help, Sullivan encouraged Hoosiers to use the state-run BeWellIndiana.org to take a mental health self-assessment. Since April, more than 25,000 Hoosiers — many of them under 25 years old — have completed those assessments.

For more than three-quarters of those taking the surveys, there was confirmation of a mental health diagnosis, Sullivan said. Of those, 57% had not been previously diagnosed with a mental health condition and were not receiving any treatment at the time of the assessment.

More than half of all self-screenings additionally confirmed a moderate to severe presence of depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety — the three top mental health issues related to suicide, Sullivan said. Asked to identify what was contributing to their mental health problems, the top three responses were loneliness or isolation, past trauma, and relationship problems.

“What this says to me is that we have young people with new and serious mental health conditions,” Sullivan said. “We have a responsibility and an opportunity to make sure that we support these individuals so that their mental health needs are met now and do not become chronic.”

In addition to state resources online, those seeking resources can also call 211 or 866-211-9966 to speak to a trained crisis counselor 24 hours a day for free, or text HOME to 741-741 to get help.

The call line has already received more than 6,000 calls this year, Sullivan noted, with the majority of callers between ages 40 and 64. Crisis counselors have so far referred 29% of those callers to mental health treatment and connected more than 1,000 people to resources for food, clothing, housing support or utility assistance.

“Please realize that it’s OK to reach out for help. And to help others around you to get through this, too, encourage them to seek help through these resources," Sullivan said. “Know that it’s OK not to be OK.”