4 months later, and I still can't get my unemployment money due to identity theft

 


There is no good time to get hit with identity theft.

But when it happens during a pandemic, and identity thieves prevent you from collecting unemployment, the only source of income during a crippling health and economic crisis —   it's especially gut-wrenching.

Panic, anxiety, fear to take over. Anger sets it. You call the state screaming.

I tried to call, but no one answered the phone.

As Michigan faces an unprecedented unemployment crisis brought on by a merciless virus, thousands of Michiganders are still trying to figure out how to pay their bills and feed their families because identity thieves have compromised their ability to collect unemployment.

Some can't even apply for unemployment because of scammers. I'm painfully aware.

Turns out, I am among more than 110,000 Michiganders who have reported fraud or identity theft to the state unemployment agency since March when COVID-19 shut down our state and upended our lives.

I was trying to file for unemployment over the phone in May, only to learn that someone had fraudulently used my name and social security number in 2017 in an effort to collect unemployment benefits.

That bogus claim, I found out this week, was never paid out. But I was never notified by the state that someone tried to use my personal information three years ago to collect unemployment  — a scam that froze my ability to file a legitimate claim when the pandemic hit and i was furloughed.

At least that's what I was told over the phone. I had to file an identity theft report and await a pending investigation, which appears to have fallen into the bureaucratic abyss.

To be fair, I'm not in dire straits. I've been working throughout the pandemic but qualified for unemployment to cover the income I lost when I was furloughed for three weeks in the spring due to COVID-19.  

My experience with the system, however, has raised a larger issue.

What would I have done had I been laid off indefinitely, and unemployment was my only source of income during the pandemic, my only way to feed my kids, pay a mortgage, heat a house. What is a person in that situation to do if they can't get unemployment?

Shouldn't there be a safety net in place to help people in this predicament, whose only lifeline has been cut by thieves?

The state hears the frustration and says it's working "day and night" to get desperate people their money. But it's facing a colossal crisis like none seen before.

In the last six months, Michigan has received nearly 2.6 million unemployment claims, which is as many as it has seen in the last six years combined. April was especially rough as weekly claims skyrocketed to to a record 388,000, compared to the 5,000 weekly claims before the pandemic.

And the crooks are only making matters worse as the state now has to weed through the claims and make sure money isn't going to thieves.

 “Unfortunately, this unprecedented public health crisis has created an opportunity ripe for abuse by people who are exploiting the system and hampering the ability to get legitimate claims paid,” Attorney General Dana Nessel has noted.

Michigan is not alone.

The FBI says it has seen a spike in fraudulent unemployment claims across the country in the wake of the pandemic, which gave fraudsters something extra to chew on: the  $600 weekly federal boost that ran through July 31. 

 "As noted, we have had over 110,000 reports of fraud or identity theft since March 1," said Jason Moon, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. "Each one of these reports requires individual attention to resolve." 

But peoples' patience is wearing thin. They have bills to pay.

40,000 still in limbo

Since March 15,  the state has paid out nearly $22 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 2.1 million workers.   State officials say that 98% of all eligible claims have been paid since the pandemic started.  

However, nearly 40,000 people who lost work are still waiting for checks. More than half are awaiting ID verification;  Another 13,900 require a one-on-one meeting before they can be paid, per federal law.

And still another 201,000 Michiganders have been declared ineligible for unemployment.

Free Press reporter Tresa Baldas outside of her home in Detroit on April 14, 2020.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

My fiasco started in early May when I tried to file a claim online.  When I entered my name and social security number, a message kept appearing saying I already had an account. I kept trying. Same message.

So I opted to file a claim over the phone. That's when the person on the other end discovered the glitch:  Someone had used my personal information in 2017 to file for unemployment.  The woman told me I had to file an identity theft report, and wait pending an investigation.

She said she did not know if the 2017 claim had ever been paid. But what I learned this week is that the claim was approved, but never got paid out because the person never went back in the system to certify it. Certification is required to get your money.

The bogus claim was never flagged for fraud. My name and social security number, meanwhile, remained in the computer database. So when it went to file my first "real" claim this year, it said I was already in the system. And it wouldn't let me create a claim.

Four weeks would pass and I received no updates on my investigation — and it wasn't for lack of trying. I repeatedly tried to reach the unemployment office's fraud unit by email and phone, and once waited on hold for seven hours as the annoying on-hold music played nonstop, even past the  5 p.m. closing time.

No one ever answered. 

I have since learned that the woman on the phone mishandled my case. She should have allowed me to file a claim, the state says after learning that I wasn't the one who filed the claim in 2017.

'I'm still on hold'

Despite my three decades of working as a journalist, at 52, navigating the unemployment system was a grueling process.

I didn't know what form to fill out to report my unemployment identity theft, where to find it or send it, or who to call. The woman on the phone who discovered my theft mentioned a so-called 6349 form, but she didn't send me one. I found it on my own through Google.

 Lucky for me, one of my Free Press colleagues had the same experience about a year ago and helped me out. She said that I had the right form —The UIA 6349, Statement of Identity Theft — and gave me the name of a person in the fraud unit who had helped her.

 I contacted him multiple times via email — my subject lines stating "Urgent: Need help with identity theft claim" — only to learn he wasn't the appropriate person. Still, he emailed me back.

"I completely understand your frustration given the circumstances," the unemployment employee wrote in an Aug. 5 email.  "I was able to find your documents ...  However, I don't have the authorization to open your account because I’m not with the fraud unit."

Still, he tried to help. He called me the following morning to connect me directly to the fraud unit. He put me through, but after two hours of being on hold, my cell phone died.

I emailed him back and asked him to reconnect me using my landline number. He called back and put me through again. Another four hours passed, with me on hold.  I emailed him again.

"It is 4 p.m. and I'm still on hold. Could my day just end like this?"

He didn't respond.

The annoying on-hold music continued.

At 5:03 p.m. I hung up.