CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. — A metro Atlanta woman has shown Channel 2 Action News her unemployment benefits mail she has received that appear to belong to Californians waiting for their money.
Our investigation has found at least one tie to what several states are now calling a massive identity theft fraud.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr spoke to the Clayton County woman from Jonesboro, who received mail from a legitimate bank that processes cards loaded with unemployment funds.
The problem is that none of it is hers. But federal officials are onto a fresh investigation involving the bank card accounts and identity theft.
“I want to make sure that this gets to the right people. I know how hard it is right now, and I know everybody need their, you know, their finances, their money,” the Jonesboro woman said, asking not to be identified.
She hasn’t applied for anything, nor does she have ties to California. That’s important because at least six pieces of mail have arrived since Monday — all on behalf of the California Employment Development Department--and some of them have, what feels like a bank card inside.
“They each have someone else’s name, but your address?” Carr asked the woman.
“Yes,” the woman said.
“What’s going through your mind when you see where it’s coming from?” Carr asked.
“I was thinking maybe the system had got hacked or some fraud was going on. But nevertheless, I felt like, you know, with the pandemic, I feel like people really need their money right now,” the woman said.
When she couldn’t reach anyone in Sacramento, she came to Channel 2 Action News.
We took a look at the return address. It’s a P.O. Box in Gray, Tennessee. A quick search shows it belongs to Bank of America’s prepaid debit card services.
Their clients include unemployment offices from a handful of states across the country, including California.
Channel 2 Action News found similar mailings from Maryland that show a state unemployment office logo on the top of the envelope, with the same Bank of America return address. Those people then get their unemployment benefits on a debit card.
On Wednesday night, California officials said they’d look into this further and sent us information about their fraud unit and how to report suspicious activity.
At the same time, Carr learned an unknown number of Maryland residents had accounts closed and funds wiped from the Bank of America cards after the July 4th weekend.
Arizona officials also confirmed canceling 28,000 of the same account cards, and it’s all for the same reason.
“We are here to announce that the State of Maryland has uncovered a massive, sophisticated criminal enterprise involving widespread identity theft,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan during a Wednesday news conference.
“Our department quickly detected, reported and blocked payment to over 7,500 fraudulent out-of-state claims,” Maryland Department of Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson added.
In Maryland, state officials say unemployment office employees helped detect about what ended up being a $500 million scheme in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims.
In Arizona, authorities recovered $70 million by closing what officials said were mostly fraudulent accounts. But both states recognized legitimate Bank of America accounts were also closed during the crackdown. They’re working to get funds back to an undisclosed number of recipients.
Arizona reported fewer than 1,000 complaints from real recipients. Maryland has not offered any hard numbers.
“Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the amount of unemployment fraud occurring throughout the nation,” said Special Agent in Charge Derek Pickle, with the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General.
DOL is heading up the latest investigation believed to be tied to previous national data breaches.
In a release Thursday, Georgia also reported a sharp increase in unemployment claims and a fresh fraud investigation. The state is not tied to Bank of America accounts, but are investigating the legitimacy of claims filed after July 4th- Maryland and Arizona, began reporting new fraud cases, and closing the BoA accounts.
“We are reviewing each claim to ensure the integrity of our system and to uncover fraud,” said Georgia DOL Commissioner Mark Butler. “Many states have seen sharp increases in claims numbers leading to the uncovering of large fraud rings and individual fraudulent claims that led to criminal charges and prosecution.”
As for the Jonesboro woman, she told Carr that she is returning the unemployment benefit cards to the bank’s post office address. She doesn’t want to be accused of holding onto anyone’s funds.
“Someone down the line will pay for it one way or the other?” Carr asked Lori Silverman, director of Clark Howard’s Consumer Action Center.
“That’s correct, and you don’t want it to be you. And you can be an innocent victim who then ends up on the other side because you’ve got these cards,” Silverman said.
Our experts at Consumer Action Center say if you find yourself on the receiving end of unemployment insurance no one owes you, you should record every effort made to get rid of the money.
“Document this and all the emails and the places you have gone to get this to right place,” Silverman told Carr.
Silverman said that starts with contacting your state’s labor department for guidance. And if you’re sending money back to anyone, make sure it’s certified mail.
As for the people whose names appeared on the mail that came to the Jonesboro woman’s home, Channel 2 Action News attempted to contact them.
Online, one of the people appears to be a legit California resident. We were unable to immediately reach that person.
The other has no record of living in the state. That could be an example of identity theft fraud.
California’s unemployment department told Carr it had forwarded the details of our investigation to the unemployment insurance department. It wouldn’t discuss specifics in this case, but reiterated ways to report to their fraud unit.
Bank of America declined to comment on this story.
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