Local county commissioner becomes latest victim of growing unemployment scam

SANFORD, Fla. — There’s a growing threat from scammers trying to steal identities to file fake unemployment benefits claims.

It happened to a Seminole County Commissioner and like so many other victims, he discovered the state is slow to respond.

Commissioner Jay Zembower helped lead the county’s COVID-19 response for months. Now he’s experiencing firsthand how the pandemic fuels scams that put so many at risk.

Zembower received a notice from the state of Florida claiming he was approved for unemployment insurance.

“Why am I getting this? I have not made any unemployment claims. It’s very odd to me,” Zembower said.

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Then, thinking someone stole his identity to apply for jobless benefits he tried to report what happened to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), the agency that oversees unemployment claims.

“I called and could never get through, left a message for an automated call,” Zembower said.

A week later, Zembower got a state unemployment check for $275. Scammers failed to reroute the check to their account, at least this time.

He tried to contact the state agency again. Zembower said he grew frustrated. “No response. Zero response, in writing or otherwise.”

Just this year, Action 9 received 10 complaints from consumers claiming identity thieves tried to steal unemployment benefits using their names. If it’s not reported and stopped, identity theft threatens their good credit and there’s a tax risk. Jobless benefits are considered taxable income.

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“And the IRS will look at those and say you have unreported income,” said Eva Velasquez with the Identity Theft Resource Center.

She says many victims of this COVID-19 scam won’t find out their IDs were stolen until they try to file taxes and discover they’re responsible for benefits paid to someone else.

Velasquez says it’s up to the victims to undo the damage. “The onus falls directly on the victim to get the documents, be persistent, report to multiple places.”

DEO’s online dashboard shows more than 48,000 claims could be fraudulent.

The agency told Action 9 it takes the issue seriously and it has partnered with ID.me, a security technology company, to improve fraud detection.

Commissioner Zembower says the agency has not done nearly enough to respond to identity theft victims and the real unemployed who say the agency has not responded to their legitimate benefit claims.

“These people are trying to feed their families, pay the rent, do all these things, I’m very concerned about that,” Zembower said.

The Department of Economic Opportunity now has a form on its website to challenge taxes you don’t owe.

Also place alerts and freezes on all your credit reports if you think you have become a victim.

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Florida Department of Economic Opportunity statement:

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity takes Reemployment Assistance fraud seriously. The Department has long established identity verification procedures requiring claimants’ identities to be verified prior to processing a claim for Reemployment Assistance benefits. In addition, the Department has multiple tools and mechanisms to monitor fraudulent activity in real time.

Over the past few weeks, the Department has identified an increase in filed claims, and the Department has taken additional proactive steps to mitigate fraudulent claims in the CONNECT system.

The Department partnered with ID.me, a trusted technology partner, in 2020 and has recently expanded that partnership to help keep Floridians’ identities secure from fraudulent activity and bolster current fraud prevention measures. In February 2021, the Department deployed ID.me’s technology solution for new claimants applying for Reemployment Assistance benefits. The Department is still working through the logistics of fully integrating the ID.me identity verification tool to the CONNECT system and will provide an update once this technology is fully available for claimants. Florida was the first state to implement ID.me as an identity verification resource for claimants who were unable to access their CONNECT account.

Additionally, in an effort to streamline the Department’s process for reporting instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud or identity theft, DEO has introduced an online form that gives Floridians another method to report instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud or identity theft. If someone is aware of any instance of Reemployment Assistance fraud or believes they are a victim of Reemployment Assistance identity theft, please visit the Department’s Reemployment Assistance Fraud page found here and click on “Online Fraud Form” to notify the Department.

The Department takes Reemployment Assistance fraud seriously and it is important that all possible instances of Reemployment Assistance fraud and identity theft are reported. Once a report of fraud or identity theft is received, the claim will go through verification processes, which aides in the detection of fraudulent activity. If fraudulent activity is suspected, the Department reviews the claim and determines appropriate next steps.







Todd Ulrich, WFTV.com

I am WFTV's Action 9 Reporter.