A Maryland woman says she is eager to return thousands of dollars to Arizona, after someone created a bank account in her name and received cash from the Department of Economic Security (DES).
The debacle comes as DES tries to combat an increase in potential fraud and tens of thousands of Arizonans continue to wait months for their jobless benefits.
Julie Constantino lives in Maryland and says she has never even visited Arizona.
This summer though, the professional florist started to notice strange things surrounding her finances. She says a debit card was mailed to her, unordered checks arrived with her information on them, and then finally a letter was sent alerting her to a new bank account she never created.
Two days later she saw a deposit.
"I laughed and said, 'Who in God’s name creates a bank account with someone else’s personal Information and has $5,736 deposited in the account?' Who does that," she wondered, incredulously.
The answer is fraudsters. Criminals who are taking advantage of the COVID-19 chaos to steal people's benefits and take taxpayer dollars.
DES says it is becoming more prevalent with each passing week, and "since the PUA eligibility criteria...does not require proof of employment or base period wages, criminals are able to target a much larger portion of the population to steal their identity and file for benefits back to February 2, 2020."
Since the pandemic begun, a DES spokesperson says the agency has flagged 'hundreds of thousands of claims as potential fraud.'
They've also received 36,120 referrals about potential fraud, and confirmed 9,544 cases as actual fraud.
It is unclear though, how many of the people taking the money have been identified and arrested.
Even with the large numbers, DES says 25,684 tips are pending review - and for each fraudulent claim they catch, another is filed.
Julie wonders how her cash got through to a bank account tied to someone across the country, when so many in Arizona are still waiting for benefits.
"It feels totally backwards - that people [who] have the legitimate backing for collecting unemployment can’t get their money," said Constantino.
Trisha Negus is one of those legitimate Arizonans who has been waiting, with increasing despair since March for her benefits.
The Queen Creek mother and her husband were both laid off at the beginning of the pandemic. Despite calling every day, spending hours trying to get to the helpline, and sending countless emails - they have not received a dime from the state.
"I had to cancel my car insurance. We have no money," said Negus, who said the family has been going to a food bank and biking everywhere.
After months of calling, Trisha sent a direct message on Twitter that finally generated a response and personal call from the hard-to-reach agency.
She says the DES representative helped her re-file, told her the claims of her and husband would be expedited and apologized for the poor service and hardship she has been experiencing as a result.
"First I’m gonna pay bills. I’m delinquent a few months on bills," she said. "Then we're going to go to the grocery."
The thousands of dollars will relieve so much stress for the family forced to scrape by these past few months.
Meanwhile, Julie is just trying to relieve herself of the thousands of dollars.
"The scope of this problem is huge, because I want to give the state of Arizona the money back, because this is not my money.
DES said in the statement that they are working with the Secret Service and other law enforcement to investigate the fraud and "have made significant progress in identifying case types and patterns to release payments to actual Arizonans."
"Since the onset of COVID-19, DES has paid out more than $8.54 billion in unemployment benefits. Arizona has seen more volume in unemployment claims than ever before in the history of the program. Since March 7, 2020, a total of 349,079 Arizonans received Unemployment Insurance (UI), and 797,903 Arizonans received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)."
You can report suspected fraud at https://des.az.gov/how-do-i/report-suspected-fraud