SEATTLE — Thousands of Washingtonians have spent weeks locked out of their unemployment accounts as the state takes on a massive imposter fraud investigation. But some residents said the situation has been much worse for them.
Scott Stracener learned his Chase bank account had been closed by the bank and was suddenly denied access. He was notified that the funds in his account would be released to him in 10 business days.
"I learned that Washington State Unemployment triggered the fraud alert on my unemployment benefits deposit, and the bank took action," Stracener wrote in an email. "I'm lucky. I'm still working. I wonder how many people who are legally entitled to collecting unemployment benefits have had their bank accounts canceled or flagged for fraud."
It is true that banks have the right to close an account from suspicious activity. The FBI confirmed that the banks should send the account holders their balance, but it does take time.
Chuck Ritchie said he was receiving unemployment benefits when they suddenly stopped in mid-May because of the fraud investigation, but recently the situation took a dark turn for his family.
Ritchie uses a Netspend prepaid account for his unemployment benefits and taxes, and he recently learned that the state Employment Security Department (ESD) put a fraud alert on his account, leaving him without access to his own money. Ritchie said he can check the balance on his account through an automated line, but when he talks to an actual person on the phone, they cannot locate his money.
"This is the opposite of helping," said Ritchie. "It's not like they're just denying me payments. They actually took my money and locked me out of my account. So, it's frustrating, and it really makes me mad."
Ritchie said he's concerned because like millions of Americans, he is in forbearance, and his balloon payment is due in July. He and his wife, Larah, have not been sleeping over the stress of how they're going to pay bills.
ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said she was aware of this happening to a small number of claimants in a recent call with reporters.
KING 5 specifically asked LeVine what people can do if they find themselves locked out of their accounts.
"I'm not going to provide a roadmap for the criminals to our actions," said LeVine. "But I can share, we have confirmed a small number of cases where this is happening. We have a process to resolve the issue between the customer and their bank when it is a legitimate claim. And that's really important to say there, when it is a legitimate claim."
Ritchie may have had his account targeted for suspicion because he uses a Netspend prepaid account, which is something he has used for years to help speed up his tax return and while he was traveling the country. This year he also used it for his stimulus payment and unemployment benefits.
KING 5 spoke with several viewers who use prepaid accounts and are experiencing the same lockout issue. The flexibility of these accounts could be something that would attract a thief, especially one in an international fraud ring.
LeVine wants to emphasize the ESD has never dealt with this kind of criminal attack before at this scale, and they are working on the balance between helping people and fighting fraud. LeVine asked KING 5 to help connect ESD to people who are currently locked out of their bank accounts.
The Unemployment Law Project is a nonprofit agency that specializes in helping people in the unemployment appeals process, and Executive Director John Tirpak said it's important to contact lawmakers and make a witness statement with the agency in an effort to get the state Supreme Court to force the ESD to resolve claims in a timely manner.
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