A scammer got thousands while thousands of out-of-work Virginians waited on hold

Posted at 3:21 PM, May 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-25 23:35:43-04

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. -- Jimmy Comer, at Relationship Business and Insurance (RBI) Services in Hanover County, has helped dozens of businesses stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we were dealing with those PPP loans, we helped 50 businesses at no additional charge fill out those applications,” Comer recalled. “For the last 15 months, I’ve worked 70 to 80 hours a week and haven’t had many days off.”

Comer contacted the CBS 6 Problem Solvers after learning scammers were cashing in, while some Virginians were waiting months for unemployment benefits.

Comer received a letter last month that revealed someone filed for unemployment benefits through the Virginia Employment Commission using his name, business address, and Social Security Number.

“There are fraudulent claims being made in some of our customer’s names and even RBI,” he explained. “This week, we received notification that the VEC did pay out claims in my name to somebody.”

The scammer received $5,590 through the VEC over a 10-week period, according to an email Comer received on Monday.

“We also have clients that had the same thing happen to them. We have at least another business owner who received a claim in his name against his business,” Comer said.

What's the Problem?

Dr. Megan Healy, Governor Ralph Northam’s Chief Workforce Advisor, spoke to the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee last week.

She reported that Virginia has paid out $59 million on fraudulent claims to date.

“Fifty-nine million dollars does sound like a lot, but California has $17 billion in fraudulent claims. This is a national issue,” she told state lawmakers.

Her office has since asked for help from the Virginia State Police and requested cybersecurity specialists to investigate.

A State Police spokesperson said they are in the assessment stage of what their needs are in relation to providing investigative support.

“We really cut down on fraud by looking at claimants that had the same email address, home address, same bank accounts to really shut that down,” Healy said.

Suing the State

The state is also facing a class-action lawsuit in federal court that accused the VEC of “gross failures" when it came to providing help, as required by law, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Northam issued Executive Directive 16 the day the VEC and attorneys met with a federal judge for mediation. The state plans to add an additional 300 adjudicators through contractors to help speed up claims.

The VEC fulfilled 85 percent of claims within 21 days, which is the sixth-highest in the nation.

It’s the cases with issues that have taken the longest to resolve on average two months, according to Healy.

“To actually be an officer it takes 18 months to train somebody. It’s a long time because these laws are very complex,” she explained. “We are doing quick training that would take a week and really isolate one issue.”

Healy likened the position as a paralegal of sorts, someone who is required to understand Virginia law.

Fraud is just one of the issues at the VEC the Problem Solvers have uncovered over the last year.

We discovered an audit that proved the state knew employees were using a decades’ old benefits system that needed an upgrade more than a decade ago.

“We get calls that people have incredibly long wait times,” Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) said. “I’ve had people tell me they lost their homes because they can’t get their unemployment benefits.”

Several lawmakers echoed that they answer dozens of calls and emails from their constituents each week.

Healy said their customer service centers receive 100,000 calls each week. That number should drop when VEC updates its benefits by October 1.

"PIN numbers and change in address also clog our call center. That’s why I’m really excited about the UI modernization technology. That is something most people do online when you forget your password. We don’t have that capability. You have to call the call center,” Healy said.

The VEC can only mail out PIN numbers which also delays cases from being resolved.

The lawmakers did acknowledge the large surge in cases thrown at the VEC over the last year, 10 years' worth of cases in less than 12 months, but said Virginians need help now.

Meanwhile, Comer sat on hold for three hours with the VEC without reaching a person. He’s also filled out a fraud form on the VEC website when he discovered the issue.

The VEC did contact Comer after the CBS 6 Problem Solvers got involved on Monday. Comer said he was told the scammer used a Houston address to receive the money and the VEC will be closing the case.

“It’s more than just getting benefits out. It’s handing out money that shouldn’t be handing money out,” Comer stated.

Watch for Problem Solvers Investigations Tuesdays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Click here for more of our investigations or to submit a tip to the Problem Solvers.

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