Most of that fraud -- $2.2 billion of it -- was linked to people who concealed that they continued to work, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
The findings raise questions about the program's efficacy, at a time when many workers continue to struggle in a still-recovering job market. Although the fraud represents a small percentage of the total $108 billion in unemployment benefits paid out in 2011, it nevertheless undermines the program's goals and perhaps takes away from those who are qualified for the payments.
About $500 million of fraudulently claimed money went to workers earning at least $900 per week, or $46,800 per year, the St. Louis Fed noted. Fraudulent claims for those earning less than $300 per week cost the program a far smaller amount, about $210 million.
The reason for the disparity is simply that high earners receive bigger unemployment checks, because workers receive benefits that represent a portion of their earnings, the study said.
Despite that, more low-earners committed fraud, according to the bank. Almost half of the concealed-earnings fraud (unemployment claims from people still receiving wages) was committed among people earning $300 to $600 per week. That's annual income of $15,600 to $31,200.
With the recession and a tough job market, unemployment fraud has come under scrutiny, although the St. Louis Fed didn't note whether the cheating is on the rise or has diminished. But The Wall Street Journal notes that the cost of the fraud likely declined in 2012, given that total spending on jobless benefits fell to $84 billion last year.
Several high-profile cases of alleged fraud have recently come to light. In January, federal prosecutors alleged a fictitious employer scheme defrauded the government of $5 million, with fake employers laying off fictitious employees, who then filed for benefits.
And the Illinois Department of Employment Security last Monday said it was cracking down on unemployment fraud. It alleges that five Chicago-area residents claimed unemployment benefits, even though they were still working, costing the program $159,000.
The program has also come under fire for providing benefits to millionaires, with the government spending $29.9 million in jobless payments to million-dollar earners in 2010, as I wrote earlier this month for MSN moneyNOW. That represented a 44% jump from the previous year. With Wall Street companies such as JPMorgan Chase (JPM +0.02%) cutting thousands of jobs during the past few years, it raises the possibility that some of those million-dollar earners are bankers or brokers.
While several bills have been introduced that would limit jobless benefits for workers with high incomes, the proposals haven't gone anywhere.
Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.
More on moneyNOW