TAMPA, Fla. — Since the start of the pandemic, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) has paid out nearly $2 billion to criminals.
As Florida races to stop fraud, pouring money into prevention tools and working to recoup stolen benefits, the I-Team dug into what’s being done to go after those responsible, and help people stuck waiting.
“THE MONEY WAS GONE”
Christina Long has been stuck in a loop these last few months.
“It’s a constant cycle of logging into DEO, clicking that link, it sending me to ID.me, me verifying, getting that message, and waiting,” Long said, showing the I-Team her daily routine, trying to collect unemployment benefits.
She lost her job earlier this year.
“It’s so difficult. I can’t even put into words how difficult it’s been,” Long said.
Long was eventually paid the unemployment benefits she was owed and was able to collect on a regular basis, but it only lasted for about a month.
“April is when I got an email from DEO stating that my PIN had been changed,” Long said. “I get another email stating that somebody had changed my banking information.”
Long reported the issue to the DEO, filed a fraud and identity theft report online, changed her PIN and security questions, closed her bank account and verified her identity through the state contractor, ID.me.
“By the time that I got in to my account, that money was gone,” Long said.
Long could see the bank account information someone added in place of her own.
One police report, two phone calls to the fraudster’s bank and Venmo and countless phone calls to DEO later, Long said she’s hit a wall with the state without a penny coming in.
“I have not gotten in contact with anyone in weeks. Weeks,” Long said.
The I-Team was with Long as she tried to call DEO again.
Each time, this message repeated, “All of our phone lines are busy, and we are unable to offer a callback option at this time.”
The message ended by thanking the caller for their “patience during this time of high call volume,” before disconnecting.
“Literally, you can do it from the time that it’s open until the time it’s done and you don’t get anybody,” Long said.
TRAFFIC STOP TURNS UP EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY THEFT
Others the I-Team has spoken with have never applied for unemployment benefits and only discovered they were victims of identity theft through their employers.
But the hit to taxpayers now is two to three times bigger, police told the I-Team, after discovering stolen unemployment benefit debit cards worth tens of thousands of dollars.
In September, Tampa police conducted a traffic stop because the car owner had an active warrant for his arrest — including charges for fraudulent use of personal information. A police report stated the driver had “an extensive history of fraud.”
In that traffic stop, officers found two Bank of America Employment Development Department (EDD) debit cards — unemployment benefits for California.
The I-Team obtained body camera footage of the stop. An officer is heard telling another, “It’s probably going to be the unemployment benefits fraud. For these two cards… It’s like my third one I’ve done. If you see these cards, it’s unemployment. Nine times out of ten, when it’s not in their name, it’s the fraud stuff.”
One of the victims told police he knew the suspect from a dating app, but never gave permission for him “to use his social security number of identity.”
The second victim does not know the suspect and has been in prison for 15 years.
One EDD card had a $15,000 balance and the other had a $12,000 balance.
TPD tells the I-Team it has sent at least 35 benefit fraud cases to the DEO.
Supervisory Special Agent Keith Givens, with the FBI in Orlando, told the I-Team they have reports of up to $250 billion in unemployment fraud nationwide.
Givens said employers can do more to stop fraud, by staying on top of the lists they receive from the DEO and quickly responding if someone applied for unemployment who shouldn’t have.
LOCAL GANGS, EMPLOYERS, INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AMONG THOSE RESPONSIBLE
Givens said it takes time to get the right person in a cybercrime and the investigation can take years, sometimes relying on the mutual cooperation of foreign governments.
“We have anywhere from gangs that are local in Florida to enterprising individuals, to even employers who are seeking to skim a little money off the top, if you will,” Givens said. “And then on the other end of the range, we’re seeing that there are international organizations…working in foreign countries, as well as individuals that they recruit here, to do low-level tasks that facilitate the crime.”
Reviewing federal documents, the I-Team found a man from Melbourne, Florida, who fit that description. He was sentenced to federal prison this year, for acting as a “money mule” assisting people overseas who were engaging in fraud — including for unemployment fraud.
“This is something that should concern all Floridians,” Given said. “Any time that money is diverted from individuals who legitimately need to use it for unemployment insurance, it makes it more difficult for everybody to get the help that they need.”
The DEO estimates it has prevented $11.2 billion in fraudulent payments. It is working with state and federal authorities to get back the $1.9 billion Florida has paid out in fraudulent claims.
But Long says, she doesn’t know how much longer she and others can wait, as their unemployment accounts remain locked.
“People are really trying. They’re trying to do, just like me, everything that they can,” Long said. “I just want somebody to take accountability for that. You know that it’s broken. Do something to fix it.”
For Florida’s identity theft victim kit,click here.
Report the incident to the fraud department of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Transunion
Ask the credit bureaus to place a “fraud alert” on your credit report
Contact the fraud department of each of your creditors (credit cards, utility bills, cable bills, etc.)
Contact your bank or financial institution
Report the incident to local law enforcement
RESPONSE FROM THE DEO:
“The Department takes Reemployment Assistance fraud very seriously, and the prevention of fraud continues to remain a high priority for the agency.
Florida has remained a leader in preventing unemployment insurance fraud, or Reemployment Assistance fraud as we call it in Florida. To date, the Department has prevented an estimated $11.2 billion in fraudulent payments, and expect this number to be nearly $20 billion by September 2021.
Here are some examples of how we prevent fraud in Florida:
The Department has made preventing, detecting, and combatting Reemployment Assistance fraud and identity theft a top priority dating back to 2014 when the Department implemented a state-of-the-art detection program—the Fraud Initiative Rating and Rules Engine (FIRRE), which is used to investigate suspicious claim activities. In addition to the FIRRE system, the Department has long-established identity verification procedures requiring claimants’ identities to be verified prior to processing a claim for Reemployment Assistance benefits. The Department has multiple tools and mechanisms to monitor fraudulent activity in real-time.
The Department partnered with ID.me, a trusted technology partner, in 2020 and expanded that partnership in February 2021 for new claimants applying for Reemployment Assistance benefits. The partnership with ID.me’s technology solution helps keep Floridians’ identities secure from fraudulent activity and bolster current fraud prevention measures. Florida was the first state to implement ID.me as an identity verification resource for claimants who were unable to access their CONNECT account and the Department is still working through the logistics of fully integrating the ID.me identity verification tool to the CONNECT system.
The Department implemented an alert system to notify Reemployment Assistance claimants when banking information or PIN numbers have been changed in CONNECT. The notification will come from [email protected], an official DEO email address. If claimants believe someone has stolen their identity, gained access to their account, and are now locked out, they should report this through the Reemployment Assistance Help Center, another tool the Department has to mitigate instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud and identity theft.
The Department also provided an identity theft toolkit which details what Floridians should do if they are a victim of identity theft, and steps they should take to mitigate fraudulent activity on their account. To view the identity theft toolkit, click here.
Fraud detection and research is ongoing at the Department, and we continue to look for additional ways to mitigate instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud and protect Floridian’s identities. However, claimants are always encouraged to verify that their account information, such as their contact information and bank account information, is accurate and up-to-date each time they access their account. Claimants should also make sure to verify any suspicious emails or phone calls to make sure they are official correspondences and to mitigate instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud or identity theft on their end.
Florida’s share of fraudulent payments is $1.9 billion, or 2.2% of the national estimate. The Department is actively working on recouping these funds paid to fraudulent claims. We work with US DOL’s OIG office and refer cases to the appropriate law enforcement and prosecutorial entities at the state and national level. The Department cannot comment on any ongoing investigations.
If you’ve already verified your identity with ID.me and your CONNECT account remains locked, claimants now have the ability to notify the Department. Please visit the Reemployment Assistance Help Center to notify the Department that your Reemployment Assistance claim is locked. In the Reemployment Assistance Help Center, select “I am a Claimant,” and then select “Account Login Assistance,” then select the next series of options that match your login issue to notify the Department.”