Jobless Benefits Stymied For Thousands in State

Unemployment benefits for thousands of jobless Oklahomans have been stymied by the agency that handles the funds.

Officials of the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said “suspicious activity” linked to “fraudulent actors” as the reason why the benefits have been frozen.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission said it froze thousands of accounts over the weekend out of concern that fraudsters were trying to illegally access unemployment benefits.

The agency, in a series of social media posts, said the accounts of “less than 20 percent” of the unemployment benefit cardholders were put on hold due to “probably fraudulent activity.”

The agency urged those whose accounts are affected to contact the agency to straighten it all out. Judging from Facebook comments, though, people weren’t having much luck calling the OESC.

For Tulsa resident Amanda Hymer, who learned that her benefit payments had been suspended Sunday, it meant she first needed to find gas money so she could drive to Sapulpa, since the Tulsa office closed earlier this year while it is being relocated. OESC could not say when a Tulsa office would reopen.

Hymer said her OESC account was locked even though she had recently reverified her identity.  The agency requires an initial proof of identity as well as continued reverification to ensure that a legitimate account isn’t taken over by fraudsters.

“It’s been a mess,” Hymer said about the process.

The 41-year-old said her oldest daughter sent her a few dollars so she could make the drive to the Oklahoma Works American Job Center in Sapulpa.

After waiting in line in the 90-degree weather for 2½ hours, Hymer said afterward that she provided the OESC with the two forms of identification needed to restart her unemployment benefits.

The OESC, meanwhile, first addressed the issue in a series of social media posts over the weekend that initially did not mention fraud.

In a statement posted Saturday afternoon, the agency said: “OESC has become aware of a potential issue with a small percentage of claimant cards that are administered through our Way2Go debit card partner Conduent.  The OESC team will continue to work with Conduent throughout the weekend to address any issues as quickly as possible.”

On Sunday, the OESC struck a more defensive tone in one social media post meant to update the debit card issue.

“OESC did not instruct Conduent to cut off ALL payments to Way2Go cards.  Stops or suspensions are acted upon to not only prevent fraud to the state, but to protect claimants whose cards may have been compromised.

“This impacted less than 20% of cardholders and a large number are fraudulent actors posing as claimants.   “OESC will continue to review requests from people claiming to have legitimate unemployment claims, but in a review of the actions taken by the agency it has been determined that the vast majority of cards that have been suspended are connected to fraudulent actors.”

On Monday morning, the OESC said that while it locked only accounts that showed some sort of undefined “suspicious activity,” it acknowledged that some legitimate accounts may have been swept up in the action.

OESC Executive Director Shelley Zumwalt said in an email Monday that agency staff placed the hold on the accounts Friday during routine fraud mitigation “based on analysis of multiple sources of data” and not “at random.”

“Unemployment fraud is a real issue and OESC is committed to protecting state funds as well as preventing Oklahomans from becoming victims of fraud,” Zumwalt said.  “Identity verification is one preventative measure we take to identify suspicious activity and take action.  We understand there is potential that some claimants whose accounts are not fraudulent have been caught in this process.

“Claims were stopped for a variety of reasons, but we cannot publicly share specifics on the actions flagged, as it undermines our ongoing fraud mitigation efforts. We would like to stress that it is important claimants make sure they’ve submitted all required documentation when going through verification checks.”

Zumwalt wrote:

“We understand this is frustrating to those with legitimate claims and we are actively working to resolve the issue by setting up additional staffing to assist individuals with unlocking their accounts.  Stops or suspensions are acted upon to not only prevent fraud to the state, but to protect claimants whose cards may have been compromised.”

Zumwalt urged those needing to confirm their identity to call OESC’s customer service representatives at 405-525-1500 or visit their local OESC office.

She said all claimants who are able to confirm their identity will be able to access their accounts between one and three business days from the request.

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