As state recovers $300 million in fraudulent claims, many victims still have unanswered questions

TACOMA, Wash. -- The state says they have recovered $300 million given out in fraudulent claims. The Employment Security Department says $50 million of those funds are expected back on Thursday.

ESD says banks and other institutions helped to get a lot of that back. But what is still unanswered is exactly how much cybercriminals have managed to steal from the state.

“It’s just a giant cluster. I don’t know how you unwind it at this point it’s so big,” Tacoma resident Matt Ebersole said.

Ebersole is among thousands caught up in the battle between the state and criminals who have managed to steal an enormous chunk of money.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on this. I thought I was in the clear, here I am back again trying to figure out how to resolve this,” Ebersole said.

Ebersole, who is employed, says several weeks ago he found out through his architectural firm that someone was filing for unemployment benefits using his identity.

So Ebersole says he went into ESD’s secure website to verify for himself and found that his social security number was tied to a fake email and account.

“I was able to enter my email address and take my account back over,” Ebersole said.

He thought everything was taken care of until recently when he got an alert via email to check his account. There he found a letter stating he owed ESD more than $5,500. Ebersole says that the amount keeps climbing now at more than $9,000 as of Thursday.

“It says it can garnish my wages so if I let it sit will they say it will garnish my wages there is no direction on how to resolve it,” Ebersole said.

Q13 FOX asked Commissioner Suzi Levine about Ebersole’s case. Since she didn’t know the specifics Levine could not respond in detail. But she says maybe the system had not caught up in this case.

“It may have taken a little while to set that account as a fraudulent account,” Levine said.

She emphasized that no one in Ebersole’s situation would ever be expected to pay anything.

“Those who are victims of impostor fraud will not be responsible for the overpayment or paying back in the payment that has gone out in their names,” Levine said.

We also questioned Levine on what many are asking: Were red flags missed? And could ESD have done a better job of preventing the massive theft?

Levine says there were measures in place to catch fraud and she said right now people are looking for a silver bullet.

“The silver bullet is COVID-19 and that in one week we had 10 times increase in calls and initial claims,” Levine said.

She says there is no playbook in a pandemic.

“Volume and velocity we faced was far in excess of anything for which anybody could have planned,” Levine said.

So far ESD has handed out more than $4 billion to 800,000 Washingtonians.

They have processed an unprecedented volume of filed claims numbered in the millions.

ESD says they have blocked hundreds of millions of dollars from going out and they continue to see a high volume of suspicious claims.

The have hired more people to look into cases and they have added an extra layer of analysis for every claim. Many legitimate filers are now been asked to upload documents to identify themselves during the process holding up benefits for those people.

Levine also says it is taking 1 to 2 extra days to process claims moving forward.

Q13 News has heard from multiple fraud victims saying it’s been hard to navigate their way out of the mess after visiting ESD’s website.

“It’s like everybody else, when you try to call you can’t reach anybody. It says it’s busy, try again later,” Ebersole said.

Just hearing the amount of money so far recovered is shocking to many.

“It’s so huge that you can’t almost comprehend what has happened,” Ebersole said.

Levine on Thursday also discussed the cases that are in limbo in a process known as adjudication. As of this week, they say 44,693 cases are stuck in that process, which is down from 57,125 cases as of May 1.

The adjudication process takes an investigator to look into technical or unresolved questions about a person's employment history before things can move forward.

ESD says their "Operation 100%" is underway to handle these cases and they hope to have them all resolved by June 15.