Identity thieves suspected of stealing more than $400,000 in fake unemployment claims

CREATED Feb 25, 2014

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LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Since October, Fox 4 has brought you stories of many Southwest Floridians who said their benefit checks are tied up in the state's new, $63 million unemployment website. Now, Fox 4 is learning while these individuals wait for their checks, some benefits are landing in the hands of criminals.

The Department of Economic Opportunity is working to recover $420,000 of potentially fraudulent claims that were paid out since November 2013, according to DEO Press Secretary Jessica Sims.  

DEO intercepted another 5,200 potentially fraudulent claims, preventing $62,000 from landing in the hands of criminals. 

Beth Schell, Fraud Specialist with Lee County Sheriff's Office, said her team has received a handful of reports from individuals in Lee County whose identity was used to file fake unemployment claims. 

"Unfortunately, when our social security numbers fall into the hands of a bad person, there's a lot of things they can do with that," Shell said.

Once a claim has been flagged as potentially fraudulent, the claim is passed along to the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate.

Sims said the new unemployment system, CONNECT, has more fraud protection measures than the previous system had.

The program has steps to verify and autheticate a person's identity, but Sims said state officials are working to enhance the system's security.

"As fraud techniques evolve, DEO is constantly working with USDOL and partners to ensure that together, we detect all identity theft related RA fraud possible," Sims said.

Between October 2012 and October 2013, more than 10,900 potentially fraudulent claims were referred to USDOL for investigation, Sims said. 

Anyone who has been a victim of identity theft should report it to Lee County Sheriff's Office Fraud Hotline at 239-258-3292.