Unemployment impostor fraud leaves victim struggling to get his own benefits

VIDEO: Unemployment impostor fraud leaves victim struggling to get his own benefits

Kimo Wasson is in his fifth month dealing with unemployment.

“The whole system is still broken."

We helped Kimo In May, when scammers used his social security number to fraudulently file for benefits in his name. Kimo found out when he started getting letters in the mail from Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD), and then a Walmart prepaid debit card. All in his name, all while he was working.

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Back then, Kimo lost hours on the phone with the state just trying to report the fraud.

“It keeps telling me they have system problems, call back another time,” he said.

Now: the masks are on, the gloves are off, and we’re back. Because the Federal Way resident has really lost his job, and he’s fighting with unemployment again.

“At least 40 hours easily, between emails phone calls, being on hold - easily 40 hours," says Kimo.

Kimo says he’s wasting time running into the same roadblocks all over again.

“I don’t know who to believe and who to trust. All I can do is keep filing and keep calling,” he says.

Kimo thought his original identity theft case was cleared when the state sent him a letter in July verifying his social security number and concluding their fraud investigation.

But when he filed his real claim in August, he was locked out of his account.

“I keep getting a message online saying they are unable to verify my identity, ‘please call the office of investigation.’ Even though i got a letter in July saying they resolved all this,” says Kimo.

Commissioner Suzi Levine, who heads the Employment Security Department, says those compromised accounts are locked for a reason.

“We just can’t reopen the account because we know somebody has that information,” she says. “So we need to work directly with that individual after we verify them in order to set them up with an additional account.”

But that means people like Kimo have to call and re-file through the department. And Kimo says that’s where the hang-up is.

“We have an investigator - again, first verify them - and then we can run through that process pretty quickly within a couple of days to get people verified," explains Commissioner Levine.

But I told the Commissioner we talked to a someone who had to wait a month. I wanted to know: should it take that long? In general, she said, it shouldn’t, especially now.

An ESD spokesperson says it’s difficult to ascertain the number of victims in Kimo’s situation, but they estimate it is at least in the thousands.

The department has cited staffing shortages for many of the delays claimants have experienced, including this one. And ESD is still working to hire its way out of these problems.

For example, the number of “Tier Three” intake specialists - the ones who handle cases like Kimo’s - has risen from 54 in March to 448 in September. The department has also brought on 60 additional investigators in the same time frame, and hiring 89 support staffers in the Office of Special Investigations.

And after nearly a month, and a week’s time on the phone, Kimo got his benefits.

What was the secret? He says it was persistence.

“The bulk of it was just staying online with ESD and trying to work through their broken system to get the resolution,” says Kimo.

ESD insists that most cases are not a merry-go-round like Kimo’s. But for those playing the unemployment game, it appears once around is more than enough.'

See the rest of our reporting on Washington’s unemployment crisis:

If you’re having problems with unemployment, or you have a tip for consumer advocate Jesse Jones, call our hot line at 1-844-77-JESSE or email consumer@kiro7.com.