SAN FRANCISCO — Amy Russell of North Hollywood is one of many Californians who had their unemployment debit card frozen due to suspected fraudulent activity.
Months of trying to get the Employment Development Department [EDD] and Bank of America to release her money was frustrating, to say the least. Each blamed the other for the holdup.
“I was almost to the point where I seriously was going to chain myself to the front door of Bank of America,” Russell said.
Instead, after months that saw her verifying her identity, being disqualified, filing an appeal, having the EDD reverse her disqualification, and hearing from her representative’s office on Christmas Eve, she eventually emailed bank executives, including CEO Brian Moynihan.
She’s not sure if it was a coincidence, but the next morning she saw results.
“I woke up and put my glasses on, checked my bank account like I did every morning to see if I was able to access the funds, the huge balance that was on there, and my account was open. I transferred my funds immediately to my own personal bank account and have been receiving checks from EDD,” Russell said.
Recently, the small-business owner was able to reopen her establishment and has stopped collecting unemployment.
San Francisco resident Jennifer Yick says it shouldn’t be so difficult for someone to gain access to their unemployment funds. Her own frustrations with Bank of America led her to file a lawsuit against the financial giant.
“It just felt like everybody was passing the buck, and nobody wanted to take responsibility,” Yick said.
It was December when Yick's debit card was declined at a grocery store. She checked online and saw that her EDD account had only 70 cents in it, and not the hundreds of dollars she was expecting. The suit says unauthorized food deliveries in Texas, New York and Southern California were the culprits.
“The sensation was like a sucker punch in my gut, like, ‘Oh, my God! I've been scammed'," Yick said, adding she called the number on the back of her debit card that night and spoke with a bank representative. “I told him what happened [and] he said, ‘I'll put a freeze on your card.’”
Yick then began a stream of phone calls to get her money back that all went nowhere.
“And all the while, I'm seeing more and more cases, and stories come up in the news of people's cards being hacked and thinking ‘something has to be done'," Yick said.
Attorney Brian Danitz is a partner at Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, the firm handling Yick's class action suit. He says Bank of America isn’t doing its job.
“There have been no protections for EDD cardholders, there's no security chips, and then when people are defrauded, they're unable to get through,” Danitz said. “Bank of America promised ‘zero liability’ to all EDD card holders, yet by not helping people when they try to get through, they are not living up to that promise.”
Danitz said his firm has been hearing from more and more people. He says the stories they’re hearing are horrific.
“Since we filed this complaint, over 700 people have reached out to us with the same story that their accounts had been drained, and that they are unable to get any relief from Bank of America," Danitz said. “We're hearing from, for example, a father of three, who had his account drained and now he's living out of a car. We heard from a gentleman who's on medication, and he can no longer afford the medication. These people have lost their only lifeline."
In a statement, Bank of America said they’ve added thousands of agents to answer calls and investigate claims, and that “when fraudulent transactions occur on benefit cards, we review those claims and restore money to legitimate recipients.”
“As California’s unemployment program faces billions of dollars in fraud, Bank of America is working every day with the state to prevent criminals from getting money and ensuring legitimate recipients receive their benefits.
We have added thousands of agents to answer phone calls and investigate claims for the areas of the program we are responsible for and, as a result, our average wait time for callers has dropped dramatically. While the vast majority of unemployment fraud is committed by those filing false applications, when fraudulent transactions occur on benefit cards we review those claims and restore money to legitimate recipients.”
Yick, who is working again, feels fortunate compared to many others. She says the suit is about more than her missing money.
“I didn't lose that much," Yick said. "But I feel like there's just no accountability. It's the behavior on the side of Bank of America. It's so indifferent. I want the voices to be heard. I want Bank of America to step up and say, ‘Yes, we recognize this as fraud. We will investigate and we will make you whole.’”
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