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N4T Investigators: DES tries to stop unemployment fraud while legitimate claimants wait

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Arizona's unemployment system has been riddled with fraud.

The Department of Economic Security told the N4T Investigators that the “vast majority” of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims have been fraud.

As a possible solution, DES is working with a third-party verification service called ID.me. 

DES said it has drastically dropped the amount of fraud. However, some people with real claims said they are being locked out of getting the unemployment they desperately need.  

Richard Manuel said is one of them. He is a former police officer now looking for work. For more than three weeks, he said he has been unable to get unemployment due to the ID.me service. He said DES alerted him he had to be reidentified through ID.me. But when he tried going through the steps, he said the site would generate a password to use and then would not accept it. 

 "Over the course of two weeks I've done that probably 10 or 12 times,” Manuel said. 

He said the site also tells him his submitted identification is unclear. 

"Here's my driver's license, which is perfectly clear, here's my passport which is perfectly clear,” Manuel said. 

He tried getting help from DES, but said no one would even try and help. 

"The Department of Economic Security says they can't talk to me I have to call ID.me," he said. "They don't have a number on their site, so I emailed them and they keep emailing me a password, which they still don't accept on their site.” 

The N4T Investigators also spoke to Shae Morgan. She has not seen an unemployment check since May. She said she is running out of hope, waiting to be evicted and left homeless. 

"I'm a sitting duck," Morgan said. "I'm just waiting until I have to walk out."

She has been out of a job amid the pandemic and has been unsuccessful in finding work. She has little food. After a long effort of her own, she said she qualified for food stamps. However, now does not have any gas left in her car to pick it up.

She lives in Green Valley, far from any store that accepts food assistance. 

"Someone like me who had a normal life, everything changed so drastically to the point you don't want to wake up,” Morgan said through tears. 

She spends hours each day on the phone with DES trying to sort it out, continuing to reapply weekly for unemployment.

Now her internet is also at risk of being cut off. She said when that happens, she does not even know how she will try and sort things out. She said she has even faced issues with the DES operators for her British accent.    

 "I have been so rudely treated," Morgan said. "Some say, 'Sorry, I don't understand nothing you're saying' and hang up the phone.”  

 She said she is owed more than $8,000 in back-unemployment. She said she has been told it is approved and should be sent to her, but her account remains empty. 

We have made repeated requests for an interview with DES for months now, they have refused.

A DES spokesperson instead sent us the following statement: 

“We remain committed to ensuring eligible claimants receive this critical assistance, as demonstrated by our rapid implementation of the federal unemployment program extensions following the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. While many states struggle to implement the extensions, or have yet to even begin the process, unemployed Arizonans continue to receive their needed benefits. 

The Department continues to work with ID.me to look into specific instances where individuals have had difficulty verifying their documents after uploading them into the system. Additionally, ID.me technical support is available 24/7 at help.id.me. We also know that some portion of the individuals who can’t complete verification are individuals who were attempting to access benefits fraudulently and use illegally obtained information to continue to file fraudulent benefits. We continue to work tirelessly to issue benefits quickly to eligible claimants with as few disruptions as possible. 

Claimants who are unable to verify their identities through ID.me will be able to verify through DES by following the instructions provided in the UI claims system; however, it is highly recommended claimants verify their identity through ID.me. Claimants will receive benefits for all eligible weeks of unemployment. 

We are working with tremendous urgency on all cases where the claimant has verified their identity with the department. The identity verification process has helped us appropriately identify individuals who need their cases adjudicated and we continue to focus on this workload. In general, claimants should continue to file their weekly certifications. If additional information is needed, DES will contact the claimant. 

It is important to note that identity verification is simply one of several eligibility requirements to receive unemployment benefits. DES must determine whether every claimant meets these requirements. Once DES finishes reviewing a claim, the claimant will receive a notice that tells them whether or not they have been determined eligible to receive unemployment benefits. 

The time it takes for a claim to be adjudicated depends upon the complexity of the issues on each claim. Although the claimant may not see an active issue listed within the PUA portal, these claims must be adjudicated before an eligibility determination can be made for benefits and payments issued. Once a claimant has been determined eligible, the payment is released the next business day. However, it can take 1-3 business days for the funds to be deposited onto the claimants prepaid card or into their bank account.”

Brett Bezio, Deputy Press Secretary 

Morgan said she does not feel like DES is addressing the situation appropriately.  

"Every day is a new error for them, they don't care,” Morgan said. 

We asked DES to tell us how much unemployment money has gone to fraudulent claims versus legitimate claims. DES did not address that question. 

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444.  

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Chorus Nylander

Chorus Nylander is the Chief Investigative Reporter for News 4 Tucson. He is focused on giving the voiceless a voice and holding the powerful accountable.

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