Ohio halts some Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits in fraud inquiry

'It's just unnerving to not know'
Posted at 11:58 AM, Jul 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-24 11:58:28-04

CINCINNATI — The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services says it has suspended unemployment payments for some Ohioans as it investigates a fraud issue in the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.

State officials were planning to release details on the issue Thursday before a scheduled media briefing was canceled.

“All I can say right now is that we are investigating potential fraud in the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) program,” said Bret Crow, director of communications for ODJFS. “We will provide details when we know more.”

Gennaro Calloway, 31, of Bond Hill, said he has been locked out of the state unemployment system since last Wednesday. That caused him to miss a scheduled payment Tuesday.

“It’s just unnerving to not know if you’re going to be able to make your bills for that week or what’s coming up due,” Calloway said. “All the reps have said that once this is over … they will retro-pay you. That’s fine and dandy but, you know, late fees add up. Interest, all that. What are we to tell those creditors?”

Ohio has paid out nearly $10 billion in unemployment benefits since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, including $5.5 billion in regular unemployment and $4.4 billion in pandemic benefits authorized under the CARES Act. The pandemic program has encountered some problems, including a security breach that allowed people seeking benefits to see the personal information of other claimants and a series of over-payments that forced as many as 24,000 Ohioans to send money back to the state.

State officials have been watching for fraud since at least early June, when ODJFS director Kimberly Hall told the I-Team more than 1,500 instances of fraud had already been flagged.

“There was a fraud ring operating on the west coast that they were able to catch, but with so much exposure with systems, every state right now is just getting hammered,” Hall said at the time. “I just wouldn’t be surprised if people with nefarious intent are out there trying. But we pride ourselves in our protocols. In Ohio, we do pretty well with our fraud detection methods.”

Calloway said ODJFS employees told him that thousands of Ohioans were locked out of the state unemployment system because their prepaid debit cards were suspected of being fraudulent.

“They were having issues with fraud, using prepaid or online accounts like Chime, Cash App, Venmo, Netspin,” he said. “I was told to email my birth certificate, drivers license, a copy of a current utility bill. I sent all that stuff out, switched from my account to their debit card.”

Days after making those changes, Calloway said he still hadn’t received his weekly benefit payment, which replaced about 75% of his pre-pandemic pay as a call center operator.

“This is scary, having your livelihood taken from you like that out of the blue, no warning or anything,” he said. “It’s very scary.”

This is a developing story. WCPO will provide an update when we receive additional information from ODJFS.