In April, Robert Green applied for unemployment and, to his great relief, got approved.
An out-of-work artist, Green, 50, of Plymouth, needed the weekly $867 he received to support himself and his 13-year-old son as a single parent.
But then the state Department of Unemployment Assistance was hit by Nigerian scammers who filed an unknown number of fraudulent claims nationwide using stolen identities.
So the DUA halted payments it had already approved and blocked new claims while it worked to verify the identities of claimants. For Green, that meant he had to produce documents proving he was who he said he was: a picture of himself holding his driver’s license, as well as his passport, tax documents, and birth certificate. He threw in his state gun permit, for good measure.
When he first applied in April, before the fraud attack, the DUA required only a driver’s license.
But on Tuesday, after following DUA’s own guidelines, he was told that wasn’t good enough and he was stripped of his benefits and told he had to repay the $6,000 he had already received.
He can appeal, but the DUA told him it could take a month or longer just to begin the process.
“But I need money right now to pay the rent and put food on the table,” he said.
Green’s problem is the latest example of a long litany of woes that have plagued the DUA since it was hit with a deluge of claims as the pandemic took hold.
The one piece of identification Green couldn’t provide was his Social Security card, which was issued decades ago. But he did send a photograph of a tax form showing his Social Security number and his name, which, according to DUA guidelines and the advice of agency representatives he talked with, should have been enough.
The letter Green received Tuesday from the DUA said he did not meet “eligibility requirements” because the agency was “unable to verify” his identity. It included nothing more specific than that.
The DUA letter also noted that anyone who files fraudulently may be ordered to repay benefits already received and be subject to criminal investigation. When Green logged into his DUA account, it said “you owe” more than $6,000 in repayments, without further explanation.
I asked the DUA why Green had been rejected despite apparently following the guidelines. I also asked how many others have had their benefits cut off for the same reason.
DUA did not respond, which is typical of the utter lack of transparency it has shown for months.
I have received numerous complaints about slow processing of claims, abrupt cutoffs of benefits with little or no explanation, blocked access to file initial claims, and difficulties inputting passwords and other trouble using the state’s balky computer system.
In each case, the DUA response has been silence. And it’s not just me. Earlier this week, Attorney General Maura Healey publicly chastised the Baker administration for its refusal to detail the scope of the problem and the timeframe for fixing it.
She went public after her office received hundreds of calls — with some frustrated citizens calling her directly.
“The Baker administration has given no clear information about how many or what unemployment claims have been marked as fraudulent and put on hold,” she said.
Asked about Healey’s comments at a press conference on Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker said he was withholding certain information that would potentially help the fraudsters if it was released.
“Part of the reason we’ve been relatively quiet about what we’re doing to deal with this is, I have zero interest in providing a road map to people who are trying to steal money from the people of Massachusetts about what it is we’re doing to fight them,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the DUA.
“We’ve got to make sure that this very sophisticated and aggressive network of thieves don’t steal money that belongs to other people, which is what we’re dealing with,” he said.
That is all well and good, but I fail to see how detailing the scope of the problem and providing a timeline for fixing it helps future thieves. All it does is leave people who have lost their jobs and have legitimate claims to unemployment benefits frustrated, confused — and broke.
Other states have provided far more details on the dimensions of the scam, while imposing new restrictions they acknowledge have slowed down payments. In Washington state, for example, officials have said they began reviewing 190,000 claims for suspicious activity last month, of which half have now been resolved, with the state clawing back more than $300 million in erroneous payments. Still, fraudsters may have gotten away with $350 million, they say.
While Healey’s office has no direct oversight of the DUA, the Legislature does, though it has done little.
On Friday, a DUA representative is scheduled to appear before a legislative panel on consumer protection, although the chair of the committee said its “informational session” will focus on how consumers generally can protect themselves against identity theft. The DUA will not, apparently, be asked to address the people who have already been victims and what the state is doing to help them.
Two weeks ago, during a virtual state Senate “listening session,” Rosalin Acosta, secretary of the Department of Labor and Workforce Development — which oversees the DUA — touted some of the unemployment agency’s achievements, such as its daily virtual town halls (alternatively in English, Spanish, and Portuguese) and the 48,000 calls it now handles daily. The agency’s call center has been beefed up to 2,000 staffers from 50 to handle about 1 million new claims.
But Acosta said nothing about delays triggered by the fraud scam.
And she wasn’t asked about it.