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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A House panel on Monday unanimously approved a measure aimed at cracking down on unemployment fraud based on identity theft — a practice lawmakers say is spiraling out of control.

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In fact, House Economic Development & Tourism Chairman Frank Artiles said he’d been the victim of such a crime himself.

“I actually had my ID stolen, and we had unemployment benefits that were sent to the state (to establish a claim) under my name,” the Miami Republican said. “This is rampant throughout the nation, as well as in the state of Florida.”

Artiles’ subcommittee approved the measure (HB 1017), filed by Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, who said it would save millions of dollars for Florida taxpayers.

“Over the years, (the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity) has begun receiving reports that criminals were turning to unemployment insurance — in our state called reemployment assistance — as a new front for identity theft-based fraud,” La Rosa told the panel.

The bill says “identity theft is especially problematic in this state, which the Federal Trade Commission reports has the highest per capita rate of identity theft in the nation.”

A special unit within the Department of Economic Opportunity has detected and prevented more than 146,000 fraudulent claims totaling $603 million since its inception in 2014, according to the agency.

Department Executive Director Cissy Proctor said the attempted fraud is a threat to people who need unemployment benefits — and to those who pay for them.

“We’re seeing an incredible amount of identity-theft crime coming into the system, and we are focused, through our anti-fraud measures, to keep those criminals out and to keep the trust fund healthy, to make sure the money is there for those that are eligible for the benefits,” she told The News Service of Florida on Friday. “Also, it keeps (unemployment) taxes low for businesses across the state that pay the money that goes into the trust fund.”

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La Rosa’s bill takes several steps to beef up enforcement and penalties for cyber-crimes centered on public-benefits fraud.

It would give the Department of Economic Opportunity access to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles’ database of driver’s licenses — including photos and signatures — to validate claims for reemployment assistance.

It would increase penalties for people who fraudulently apply for unemployment benefits. The penalties would go from one year to five years for a first offense and would be 10 years for a second offense and a lifetime ban for a third offense.

Also, the bill would amend the definition of “racketeering activity” to include unemployment-benefits fraud under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt (RICO) Organization Act.

Monday was the first time the department-backed bill has been heard in committee. La Rosa removed parts of the bill that sought to allow the department to hire sworn law-enforcement officers and recover overpayments by garnishing wages.

“The department will continue to seek criminal investigators in its budget and will continue to build cases statewide with local law enforcement,” La Rosa said.

Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, thanked La Rosa for the changes, saying he’d had concerns about “sworn law enforcement officers working for a department where that had never been done before.”

A Senate version of the bill (SB 1216), filed by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has been sent to four committees.

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The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.