ANTIOCH, Calif. (KGO) -- We've reported how scammers used stolen identities to collect billions of dollars in unemployment benefits during the pandemic. Now the Employment Development Department is trying to claw back that money -- but mistakenly seizing money from many identity theft victims, not the real criminals.
7 On Your Side helped a Stanford University employee after the EDD seized her tax refunds and garnished her wages.
Now more victims are coming forward.
Folks are completely bewildered and blindsided -- left to wonder why the EDD would take their money when they had never filed any claim or collected benefits. Many are outraged that the EDD gave billions to crooks and now is making them pay it back.
"Why, why is this happening to me?"
VIDEO: EDD seizes Bay Area woman's tax refund, wages to pay back benefits it actually paid to scammer
Tim Hecock just found out he wouldn't be getting his $1,100 state tax refund -- just when he needed it most.
"Yeah I could really use it right now 'cause I... I just had the stroke," he said.
As he struggled with health and finances, Hecock went online in search of his refund.
Turns out it had been confiscated by the Employment Development Department -- a government agency he had nothing to do with. "It was a shock," he said.
"And I called them immediately," he continued. "You just get the runaround, you get transferred from one department to another."
Finally an agent said Hecock had to pay back benefits he was collecting while he was working in Rancho Cucamonga.
VIDEO: Disabled Californians plead for EDD to unlock their benefits after 340,000 accounts frozen
Except Hecock never worked in Rancho Cucamonga and didn't collect any benefits. He's employed by Antioch schools.
"I've been working for 10 years. I haven't filed an unemployment claim in 10 years," he said.
Apparently a scammer used Hecock's identity to file a phony claim back in 2020, and EDD paid $1,800 to the fraudster.
Now EDD wants the money back -- and took it from Hecock.
"And they're taking my $1,148 and they still say I still owe them $652," he said.
The EDD said Hecock had to prove he was the real Hecock, and wait for an investigation... and it could take six months.
An eternity for Hecock.
"It's not a lot of money for some people, but $1,100 will really help right now," he said.
VIDEO: CA mom in high-risk pregnancy goes into premature labor after disability benefits cut off
He isn't the only one.
Sandra Lascuola in Tracy tells 7 On Your Side that EDD took more than $11,000 of her refund.
Tony and Ruth Ratto in Alameda said EDD seized $1,800 from theirs.
The mistakes drew the ire of Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R - Fresno).
"These people did nothing wrong. Their identity was stolen, and the EDD treats them as if they were the scammers and cuts them off," he said.
But the EDD says it's not easy to discern between identity thieves and their victims, saying, "You would not believe the bold extent fraudsters go to in impersonating an individual... falsifying their ID...'' and even "calling EDD and legislators to complain they didn't get their payments."
So the EDD is skeptical even when honest folks call about actual problems.
RELATED: EDD estimates nearly $20 billion paid to fraudsters since start of pandemic
"So I just keep calling. That's all I can do is keep calling," Hecock said. "I appreciate any help you can help me with, anything."
7 On Your Side presented Hecock's case to the EDD -- and after waiting four months, he got a call.
"I was very surprised it happened so quickly," he said.
The EDD finally gave his money back.
"$1,148," Hecock said. "I appreciate everything you guys did. I love you guys, thank you."
The EDD has not revealed how many tax refunds it has confiscated, but says many involve workers who were overpaid by mistake, or fraud or technicalities. For ID theft victims, it can take months to go through appeals. Hopefully it isn't happening to many people - let 7 On Your Side know if it happened to you.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.
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