Fraud victims can’t get through to state after crooks steal their unemployment benefits

Published: July 23, 2021 4:54 PM EDT
Updated: July 23, 2021 6:15 PM EDT

UPDATE: After this story aired, a representative from DEO responded with the following statement in an email.

“The Reemployment Assistance program currently has 22 staff members dedicated to investigating Reemployment Assistance fraud. This does not include other areas within the Department, such as the Office of Inspector General, that also investigates Reemployment Assistance fraud. Additionally, it also does not include external entities; such as federal, state, and local law enforcement, that assist the Department in Reemployment Assistance fraud investigations.”

“Each Reemployment Assistance fraud investigation is unique, so processing times vary.”

“The Department takes Reemployment Assistance fraud very seriously, and the prevention of fraud continues to remain a high priority for the agency.”

Two Floridians had money stolen from them — swiped right from the state’s unemployment system.

We spoke to the two victims who both reported their stolen unemployment benefits to the police, their credit card companies and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

But that was months ago, and both Michelle Kelley and Ken Okel still have no money and no updates. Since then, trying to reach DEO over the phone has been impossible, and they need the cash to get by in the meantime while they try to get back to work.

“I’ve been stolen.”

Those are the words Kelley emailed WINK News after she says someone hacked into her unemployment account, took her money and locked her out.

“I didn’t get any notification to my email, my Gmail address, anything saying that my password had been changed,” Kelley said.

Kelley hasn’t been able to claim her benefits since April, but she’s watched as the crooks spend her money and try to file taxes in her name.

“I’ve even found out like transactions, the address and what date, how much money,” Kelley said. “If I can do that, why can’t they?”

Okel explained to us how he realized someone had taken money owed to him.

“March 2, I log into my account, and I noticed an alert that says there’s been a payment of $6,000,” Okel said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ And then, I noticed the payment information is not me; it’s for someone else.”

“I was having to go into my account all hours of the day and keep changing things back,” Okel said.

Somehow the bad guys gave up, and Okel has been claiming his benefits, but that $6,000 is still gone.

“It’s been a very frustrating situation because we trust the state to be good stewards of our information,” Okel said. “And I’m not sure if that’s happened. People may be doing that. But from my perspective, I know nothing.”

Neither Kelley nor Okel have any idea if or when they’ll get their money or what DEO is doing to fix it.

“If they could give us an idea that, ‘Hey, we have this many investigators, we’re working this fast. We’re trying to get this. Be patient with us,’ I think people are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Okel said.

The clock is ticking for Kelley and her 4-year-old son.

“It’s starting to get kind of stressful now, but, I mean, I’ll make it happen,” Kelley said. “I mean, I’m a mom, I got to do it, you know.”

Kelley said she needs the money to get her truck fixed so that she can get to work and get off these benefits. WINK News asked DEO how long it takes for them to resolve this kind of fraud and who’s working on it.