California’s unemployment department says that as much as 27 percent of benefits paid out during the pandemic may have been fraudulent.

The new estimate comes on the heels of anti-fraud efforts that have left many Californians blocked from collecting payments.

Since March, California’s Employment Development Department (EDD) has paid out more than $114 billion in unemployment benefits. But in a press call on Monday, Labor Secretary Julie Su said a large chunk of that money has gone to criminals.

“Approximately 10% has been confirmed as fraudulent,” Su said. “An additional 17% of the paid claims have been identified as potentially fraudulent.”

Officials said crime rings in Moscow and Nigeria have flooded the state with applications. They said scammers operate by purchasing personal information on the dark web, using it to file bogus claims, and then picking up debit cards loaded with cash at the mailboxes of vacant homes.

Stopping fraud was the stated goal when California suspended 1.4 million claims over the holidays. But many people in that group say they’re seeking benefits legitimately, and losing those payments has left them in a deep financial hole.

The U.S. recorded its sharpest spike in the poverty rate since the 1960s, with 8 million Americans being added to the government designation of poor by the end of 2020.

The U.S. poverty rate rose by 2.4 percentage points during the final months of 2020 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and lingering economic stagnation. Economists from the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame said the nation saw the largest annual increase in poverty in nearly 60 years.

Black Americans were hit the hardest during this time period. The poverty rate for Black Americans jumped by 5.4 percentage points, meaning that about 2.5 million more Black individuals are now considered poor by official government classification. The overall U.S. poverty rate, according to this latest study, sat at about 11.8 percent in December 2020.

One of the researchers who led the study, Professor Bruce D. Meyer of the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, told Newsweek Monday that if not for additional government aid, "poverty would rise substantially" across the country. The study, which pulled data from late December surveys, found that the CARES Act stimulus relief checks passed last March helped to forestall the poverty rate from spiking even higher.

Black Americans surveyed in December were more than twice as likely to be considered poor as white Americans. That data is actually an improvement from the 2020 summer months when Black Americans were three times more likely to be living in poverty. Black Americans have consistently been about three times as likely to be living in poverty compared to white Americans for almost all of the past six decades. That gap had been dramatically reduced during the country's longest-ever economic expansion between 2009 and 2019, but COVID-19 essentially wiped out those gains in 2020.

The estimated 11.8 percent of the country living in poverty is an improvement from the 15 percent who did 10 years before.

Study co-author Meyer told Newsweek Monday that those who are poor can generally be described as "those who are suffering the most material deprivation." The U.S. Census Bureau classifies a family or individuals as being in poverty if their income is less than their varying financial "thresholds," or a general reflection of one's basic needs to live. Income before taxes is weighed against one's readily available money but excludes capital gains, tax credits, and non-cash benefits such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps.

The researchers estimate that the annual Census tally from September will reflect a higher poverty rate than the last recorded pre-pandemic data, which showed a 10.5 percent poverty rate back in 2019.

"The official measure is pre-tax money income less than about 26K for a family of four. Where pre-tax money income is not subtracting taxes and not including either in-kind transfers like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] or tax credits like the EITC [earned income tax credit]," Meyer wrote via email.