TAMPA, Fla. – Cole Martinez was convinced his missing federal benefits check worth more than $4,000 dollars would never be found after it had been processed but unaccounted for since June 9, 2020.
A review of his DEO Connect account by News 6 confirmed eight “paper checks” had been processed in his name but according to Martinez, he never received the money or an explanation as to where the unemployment funds had ended up.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” the USF communications graduate told News 6. “The system has let me down beyond what words can describe.”
Martinez was convinced the funds were returned to the Department of Economic Opportunity because his apartment number was missing in the address filed with the DEO. The 23-year-old said the missing federal money left him in a financial bind because he had just rented an apartment in Tampa following graduation.
“If I had that money, I wouldn’t be here with my parents right now,” Martinez told News 6. “Everything else has worked its way through the system except those eight federal checks.”
Martinez said he had a job with the University of South Florida’s food service system but when the pandemic forced the restaurants to shut down, he was unable to pay the rent and was forced to move back home.
The agency’s Fraud Division reviewed the case after News 6 contacted the DEO’s reemployment team. DEO investigators tracked a single check made to the order of Cole Martinez for the full amount of the eight missing checks totaling $4,320.
But the signature used to endorse and cash that benefits check was a fake.
“It wasn’t even close,” Martinez told News 6. “It was one big swirl.”
A side-by-side comparison of his signature to the signature on the DEO-issued check left little doubt someone had intercepted the check and walked away with the funds. It appears the check was cashed January 2021, which suggests someone held the check for nearly eight months before cashing it.
DEO Senior Management Analyst Karmyn Hill forwarded the findings to the DEO’s Finance and Accounting and recommended that a new check be issued. Martinez told News 6 he never imagined someone had forged his name to steal the money.
“I needed this money to survive and they took it upon themselves that they needed it more,” he said.
The DEO has improved the average time to update unemployment accounts to 18 days, making the Martinez case a unique exception. DEO Director Dane Eagle told News 6 his team will continue to work with News 6 to ensure that residents across the state gain access to their benefits.
“We are 100% committed to making sure that people that are eligible receive the benefits that are owed them,” Eagle said.
Eagle said the recent revamped 2-year budget approved in Tallahassee will allow the DEO to hire an additional 434 employees effective July 1.
“The majority of them will be adjudicators who are looking at these more complicated issues that we hear from you and your team,” Eagle told News 6. “We are ramping up our staff to assist them more quickly.”
Martinez said he was grateful to News 6 for getting involved and ending the mystery.
“You got me results because I have answers,” he said. “I did not have answers.”
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