Some unemployed workers whose Maryland unemployment benefits were taken away due to an identity theft investigation still have not had their money restored, a month after the probe was made public.
It’s not clear how many people were unwittingly swept up in the fraud investigation; the Maryland Department of Labor won’t say how many were affected. A department spokeswoman said more information would be provided when the fraud investigation is complete.
But a review of frozen accounts, including the responses of those claimants to a request to submit additional documentation, has uncovered fraudulent documents in some cases. That’s underscored the need for a thorough, manual review of each case, said Fallon Pearre, the department’s spokeswoman.
Of those who have uploaded additional documents, the state has reviewed 71% of those cases, Pearre said. And of the cases that have been reviewed, about 41% of claimants uploaded fraudulent documentation, she said.
Hundreds of thousands of Maryland residents have become unemployed since restrictions to reduce the spread of the coronavirus went into effect in March. The state’s unemployment rate is 8%. There were 18,268 new jobless claims during the week that ended Aug. 1.
The problems related to the fraud investigation began in early July, when some people receiving unemployment payments saw their accounts wiped out and their state-issued debit cards frozen with no explanation.
On July 15, Gov. Larry Hogan and state Labor Secretary Tiffany Robinson announced why: Officials had uncovered a massive identity theft scheme involving more than 47,000 fraudulent claims seeking more than $500 million in unemployment benefits. Hogan said those claims came from out-of-state and were detected over the July 4th weekend.
Robinson said the division handling unemployment became suspicious when it noticed a surge in out-of-state claims, and the governor said the state put holds on paying out-of-state claims.
“A few real people who really needed benefits got caught up in that because we had to put a hold on all those payments,” Hogan said at the time.
The Republican governor pledged that state officials were working “diligently” to sort it out as quickly as possible.
“I think it will be very, very quickly that we’ll get those resolved,” he said.
But some people, including at least one Maryland resident, are waiting still to have their unemployment benefits restored.
“We are struggling just to pay the rent,” said Basem Henary, a 48-year-old Ellicott City resident who works as an Arabic language interpreter in court.
The courts initially were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, then gradually reopened for limited cases in recent weeks. Henary said he’s one of about 30 independent Arabic interpreters working in Maryland courts, but right now there are only about three or four cases a week that need Arabic interpreters.
Henary said it took months to get his claim approved, only to see his funds wiped out and his debit card frozen July 14. As instructed, he uploaded additional documentation into the state’s Beacon computer system, but he hasn’t heard whether he’ll get his money restored.
While he’s been out of work, Henary has volunteered his language skills to help 34 people apply for unemployment. Twenty-three of them had their cards frozen, too.
“A lot of people are negatively affected and they are legitimate,” he said.
The state has given no timeline for when all unresolved claims will be reviewed, and has only offered an email address — firstname.lastname@example.org ― for anyone seeking information about a claim.
“The department has a team of specialists focusing solely on the manual review and verification of all documents submitted by claimants to ensure that we are separating out the legitimate accounts and issuing new Bank of America debit cards as quickly as possible,” Pearre wrote in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun.
It’s not clear what’s happening with the fraud investigation. Pearre said the case remains under investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Labor. The federal department’s Office of the Inspector General declined to provide an update on the case.
Mohamed Mohamed is another worker in limbo. Mohamed, 45, of Hanover, Pennsylvania, opened two T-shirt kiosks at Arundel Mills just a few weeks before the mall closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking in Arabic with Henary interpreting, Mohamed said he wasn’t able to get small business assistance, but, after three months of effort, he finally was approved for unemployment in Maryland.
“Then they sent me the money, the whole amount of money,” Mohamed said. “Less than 10 days later, they closed my account and my card.”
Mohamed said he’s been trying to get his benefits restored while trying to drum up business, though the now-reopened mall has limited hours and few customers. He’s stretched thin supporting his family, buying gas for his commute and stocking his kiosks. He’s been unable to pay his rent to the mall.
Mohamed said he thought the government was supposed to help people in times of need.
“They cause more problems, not solve problems,” he said.
Kimberly Allen had been through weeks of back-and-forth over her claim and almost as soon as it was approved, her debit card was canceled July 4 because of the fraud investigation.
Allen, 54, lives in New Jersey but was eligible for benefits in Maryland, where she lost her job last year when the surgeon she worked for abruptly retired. Once she got caught up in the fraud investigation, she had to send more copies of her identification to the Maryland labor department.
Allen said she was told there was a problem because the signature on her Social Security card — which she signed when she was a teenager — was different from the one on her driver’s license. She said over the years, she modified how she signs the capital “A” in her last name.
A state employee instructed her to send a picture of herself holding the Social Security card and her license as proof that they belong to the same person.
“I was flabbergasted,” Allen said.
Allen hopes her current employer at a real estate office calls her back to work before her financial situation gets dire.
“It’s very difficult,” she said. “I am blessed that I have people that have helped me, but they don’t have all the resources in the world to keep helping me out.”