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The total amount of employment insurance fraud has hit a five-year high – a sign for federal officials that efforts to root out wrongful payments are working.

Public accounts documents released this month list more than 104,000 incidents of fraudulent EI claims totalling almost $177-million in the 2017-18 fiscal year.

It marks the fourth year that figures have increased in the wake of efforts by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) to fine tune its fraud-sleuthing tools to improve its ability to find and deal with fraud.

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Officials expect to eventually collect $132.8-million of the wrongful payments identified in the fiscal year that ended in March, and plan to write off about $74,000.

The amount of fraud is minuscule compared to the overall amount spent on benefits to unemployed workers, to new parents on leave, workers who need time off due to serious illness, or those who must stay off the job to care for an ailing family member.

EI spending between April, 2017, and March, 2018, topped $19.7-billion, meaning the value of fraudulent claims was less than one per cent of total spending.

“The government is committed to deliver these important benefits to Canadians when they need it most while protecting the integrity of the system from fraud and erroneous over payment,” an ESDC spokesman said in an statement.

“The department has made investments to improve its efforts to identify fraud, including adjustments to its risk-based analytical models. These efforts have contributed to this increase.”

Generally, the government finds it more difficult to recoup funds the later it detects fraud or overpayments.

The government must collect the money within six years of identifying the wrongful payment, or officials write it off. The clock starts when an incident is flagged, but the deadline to collect can be extended if, for instance, the debtor goes to court.

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A review of the annual spending documents show EI write offs have been on a three-year slide, hitting $43.6-million in fiscal year 2017-2018.

Two years ago, ESDC rejigged the automated system that detects fraud in hopes of identifying more and larger cases of incorrect payments.

The program considers some 100 variables to calculate the chance someone has received too much money, either by accident or through fraud.

Similar efforts have hit other programs, including old age security benefits that cost $38.4-billion last fiscal year.

Old age security fraud dropped between the 2017-18 fiscal year and the preceding 12-month period, going from 16 cases worth $1.2-million down to 10 incidents worth $494,490 – a six-year low for both figures.

Likewise, Canada Pension Plan fraud has been on a downward trend, now into its fifth year.

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Officials found five cases, worth $92,010, but half is not expected to be recovered.

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