GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - They're calling it the two-hour guarantee.
Leaders at Michigan's Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) announced Monday the agency promises to get back to all victims of identity theft within two business hours. This comes after thousands of working people have been victimized in Michigan this winter by criminals filing false unemployment claims.
It's a surprising customer service guarantee by the UIA, considering the volume of complaints made over the years by people who couldn't get in contact with anybody at the agency or get customer service on false claims.
The 13 Watchdog team profiled the outrageous case of Christine Austin from West Michigan in February 2017. An unemployment benefits claim was filed in her husband's name. She contacted leaders at the UIA to confirm she was a victim of fraud and they repeatedly told her to ignore computer-generated letters because they knew she was a victim of fraud. Yet, months later, the state of Michigan garnished an income tax refund to punish her for a bad guy filing a claim in their name. We helped Austin get her money back immediately.
"I was really upset, and I had been praying all along somebody would help us," Austin said last year.
Director of the Talent Investment Agency, Wanda Stokes, the agency that oversees the Unemployment Insurance Agency, warned the public to be cautious and to immediately report criminal identity theft related to unemployment benefits. The UIA saw a huge spike in identity theft cases in December, January and February. Stokes said the surge subsided in March as efforts began in earnest to prevent false claims from being paid.
"Most of all we want to be vigilant to address this problem," Stokes said. “Thanks to our enhanced efforts the number of unemployment insurance related ID theft complaints has dropped in recent weeks, but the issue is still a significant problem. During January, we saw 1,600 to 2,000 calls coming into the Fraud Hotline each week. This decreased to under 500 during March.”
The UIA and the Michigan State Police attribute most of the illegal activity to the large data breaches occurring nationally earlier in 2017.
“ID theft is a felony that we take very seriously,” Michigan State Police Detective First Lt. James Grady said. “Individuals, businesses and the State of Michigan have all been victimized by these criminals.”
“Unfortunately, the large-scale data breaches will be causing problems for all us for a long time,” Grady added. “That is why we urge everyone to take steps to protect themselves from these criminals.”
Stokes and UIA Senior Deputy Director Michelle Beebe said they've been able to curb some of the fraud using a number of different methods including revamping the state's fraud hotline, restructuring the UIA's investigations division to better detect fraud and by increasing awareness by people and employers to report identity theft before benefit money is paid out.
Beebe says everybody who files a claim for unemployment will receive Form UIA 1575C, Monetary Determination by mail. If you receive Form UIA 1575C and you have not applied for unemployment benefits, or the name on the form is not yours, you need to contact the UIA by going online to michigan.gov/uia through the Report Fraud or Report Identity Theft link or call the UI Fraud hotline at 1-855-UI-CRIME.
The bad guys have been successful at getting benefit money in select cases, Stokes confirmed. The leaders did not have an exact amount of wasted taxpayer money.
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.