Michigan fights to stop unemployment fraud

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If you're lucky enough to have a good job, you probably don't think about the state unemployment department much.  But maybe you need to.

Thousands of hard working Michiganders are discovering thieves have filed for unemployment benefits using their names - and the Michigan Unemployment Agency is having a hard time stopping it.

Jerry and Mike are technicians who work for Williams Refrigeration. They're good workers and good employees and have been there for decades. So imagine their surprise when they were told they had filed for unemployment!   Or at least someone using their names and jobs had filed.

Jerry's been there 37 years while Mike has worked for Williams for ten. Neither have ever been laid off or fired.  

Yet the company received a notice in November saying Mike filed for unemployment and the state of Michigan "determined that Michael is able to establish a claim."

"Our HR person immediately sent off - when she received - it faxes to the state that this is fraudulent," Mike said. "They've gone online, filed it as fraudulent. Filed police reports. Everything that we can do."

The business got the same notice for Jerry. Whoever the fraud artist who filed his phony claim didn't even spell his name right.  

The HR department faxed back copies of the paperwork exclaiming in big lettering "this is a fraudulent  claim! " That seemed to work for Jerry's claim. But Mike's unemployment benefits kept on getting processed.

"I went to the unemployment section and there was a spot you could click on and fill out a fraud and it will automatically send it to the right people in charge. And I did that," Mike said.

But it didn't stop. In January, the company received a letter stating Michael had been paid $362 per week in unemployment benefits. Mike wasn't getting the money - the the identity thief was, apparently through direct deposit into his or her bank!

The owner of the company even tried to stop it. Jim Williams said he just kept hitting brick walls.

"You can't get through to any phone numbers to the state, you have to fax them or do them online," Williams said.

At the end of January.The company got a notice that phony Michael was still getting paid unemployment while the real Michael was hard at work. Another $724 of taxpayer money to a crook.

The company sent more responses to the unemployment people that it was a fraudulent claim. On February 14th, they got this Valentine's Day gift: Another record of unemployment payouts to crooked cupid. 

Mike suggests that someone at the unemployment department is part of the problem.

Finally, on March 6th, Mike received a notice saying his unemployment benefits were stopped. But that wasn't all. 

"You were required to report to the problem resolution office by December 22, 2017," the letter said. "You failed to report as directed."

A total of $3,620 was doled out before the blunder was fixed. 

Matt Shaeffer's a corporate lawyer for a big company but he's not immune to it either. In January, someone filed for unemployment under his name. To Matt, it seemed the unemployment department didn't care.

"I tried to contact the unemployment insurance agency and I couldn't get ahold of anybody," Matt said.

He filled out the fraud report online and contacted the cops but the unemployment papers kept on coming. So he called for help.

"I actually called the governor's office," Matt said.

They got the unemployment agency to call him and said they'd stop the claim if he could prove he was the real Matt Shaeffer.

"They wanted a copy of my driver's license, my social security card, as well as my birth certificate. I had to fax over," Matt said.

Michelle Beebe is the Senior Deputy Director of Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency. She says most unemployment applications are now done online. She says that, in select cases, identification does have to be proven.

"It's not a requirement across the board," Beebe said.

Mike was one of those select cases.

"We do notify the employers and they do play a critical role in letting us know if something seems amiss about a claim and we take that quite seriously," Beebe said.

Apparently not seriously enough. Mike's employer sent all kinds of messages. We showed the letters that date back to November to Michelle. 

"In January of 2018, so shortly after these instances happened we did a complete overhaul of how work flows through our system for identity theft claims," she said.

Then we showed her the payments that were doled out to Mike's identity thief in January. It was over a month later before the problem was finally fixed. What happened?

"And so, this is absolutely unacceptable," she said. "This is not the way to run a business. This is not the way to pay out government benefits. In this case, the changes that we've implemented should prevent this in the future."

So in January they implemented the new system but the thief was still being paid in February.

"We did see an increase in identity theft claims being filed around the January-February time period. At the beginning of March, we actually brought in some extra staff to address the calls that come into our fraud hotline. We had a number of voicemails that had been left and we cleared out all of 
those voicemails," she said. 

That didn't exactly answer the question. She claims that new changes will stop this from happening again. 

How much money does the state waste giving to scam artists? And can't they catch them?

"I think that's an important deterrence factor that the people are being held accountable - that criminals are being prosecuted for fraudulent activity," Beebe said.

The state successfully prosecuted a Brownstown Township man who used more than 100 stolen identities to steal more than $700,000. He was sentenced to 5 years in federal prison.

The state also put a stop to the fraudulent payments we just told you about, and Micheal and Williams Refrigeration are not off the hook.

The state is taking action to remedy the problem. Monday morning, the unemployment insurance agency is rolling out it's latest plan to catch the crooks and cut down on fraud. It's a big initiative and hopefully it will save the state big money.