SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- There has been a new development in a series of massive hacks at California's unemployment department that KPIX 5 first exposed. Now, attention is shifting from the state to Bank of America that distributes most of the money, at last count $105 billion dollars, through debit cards we discovered are vulnerable to hacks. KPIX has received more than a hundred emails from victims. Now lawmakers are taking notice.
From a criminal's perspective, it's the perfect scenario: ATMs give out bills and cash is king in the underground economy. KPIX was the first to expose how fraudsters are hacking Employment Development Department (EDD) debit cards and wiping out the benefits of potentially tens of thousands of Californians.
"This is just absolutely unacceptable, that we have a bank that's not responding. They're not responding to you. Not responding to me, not responding to the people who they are serving," said California Assemblyman Phillip Ting.
That was Assemblyman Ting's first reaction, after watching our reports about rampant hack attacks on debit cards issued by Bank of America, the Employment Development Department's exclusive debit card provider.
We heard from dozens of desperate Californians who lost thousands of dollars, mostly stolen in cash from ATMs miles away from where they live. As we have previously reported, the debit cards do not have chips, making them more vulnerable to fraud.
But despite all the obvious red flags, victims say Bank of America is routinely denying their claims and leaving them holding the bag – people like Lieza Sy.
"I was really mad," said Sy. "How can you tell me that I'm not going to get my money back? The money that I earned, that that's rightfully mine."
The single mom found out her card was hacked while on a road trip to Pismo Beach with her kids. Two suspicious withdrawals, one for $200 and another for $800 were made that very morning back in the Bay Area.
"Wow! I'm not in Milpitas. I'm all the way down south, like how can that happen? At first I panicked because I had never had anything like this happen to me before," said Sy.
Like everyone else, she spent days trying to get through to Bank of America's fraud department to appeal the denial of her claim.
"As soon as you give them your claim number they hang up on you," said Sy.
She's still out a thousand dollars, money she desperately needs.
"I have to feed my kids. That's the most important thing. And I need to be able to provide some kind of reassurance to my kids that, hey, you know, I got you guys, things will be okay," said Sy.
"We're going into the holiday season. This is where people need money to maybe buy a few gifts for their kids, make sure that they have a nice holiday season with food. So if they can't get access to money I don't know how they can do that," said Ting.
The Assemblyman is now leading a bipartisan effort in Sacramento to demand answers from the bank. In a letter the lawmakers are calling on Bank of America to explain why it's not "unfreezing" an unknown number of debit card accounts that EDD has now confirmed are legitimate.
As we have been reporting, the bank froze 350,000 accounts several months ago due to suspicious activity.
"We have so many people who don't know why they can't access their EDD funds," said Ting.
Now Ting also wants answers from the bank about the hacks on "active" accounts that we exposed.
"We can continue to pressure EDD to push their vendor to do what their job is. We can also make sure that at the next hearing Bank of America shows up so basically we can get our questions answered. If they are under contract to service these individuals and they can't perform, they should just give it up. They should either give us the answers or give it up and we should find someone else to go do this job," said Ting.
We do have some good news to report. After we submitted Sy's name to Bank of America she got her thousand dollars back. She's one of now 15 victims that got help after we referred them to Bank of America. Still, countless others are still waiting. How many we don't know, because Bank of America won't tell.
Bank of America finally did respond to the state lawmakers' letter on Monday, saying it reviews every claim and restores money promptly to legitimate recipients. The bank says it has increased call staffing to more than 6,000 personnel and that most of the 345,000 accounts that EDD asked it to freeze are fraudulent. The losses so far, just on those frozen accounts: At least $2 "billion" in taxpayer dollars.
Meanwhile, if you want to protect yourself from the hacks the best option, right now, may be to automatically transfer benefits out of your debit card account and into your personal account as soon as the money comes in. Here's a link to Bank of America's FAQ on how to do that: https://prepaid.bankofamerica.com/EddCard/Program/FAQ#q8.
- Statement from Bank of America's spokesperson Bill Halldin:
The program is unfortunately riddled with billions of dollars in fraud. Criminals have found ways to steal money from the state and the debit cards of legitimate unemployment recipients. We have helped stop billions of dollars in theft by these criminals and protected taxpayer dollars, in partnership with state and law enforcement officials.
The criminals don't ever stop – even calling Bank of America and the news media trying to get money from the bank with fake claims. We review every claim and restore money promptly to the debit cards of legitimate unemployment recipients. We have added thousands of additional agents to answer phone calls and investigate claims for areas of the program we are responsible for and, as a result, our average wait time for callers has dropped dramatically.
We report wrongdoing to law enforcement and assist them in their prosecution of the criminals trying to steal money and undermine this program.
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