Florida woman says automated bots hacked her DEO account 27 times

Fort Lauderdale restaurant manager lost $6,000 to cyber-thieves

Francesca Crespo is convinced she went head-to-head with a bot, an autonomous program, designed to hack into her Florida unemployment account.

“They changed my banking information, they changed my security questions, they changed my PIN,” Crespo said.

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The high-tech chess match unfolded on May 13 when she received an alert from the Department of Economic Opportunity that her account had been changed.

“While I was on the phone with the (DEO) operator I got an email saying someone had changed my account information, while I was on the phone with the woman,” Crespo recalled.

Crespo said she caught a clue in the bogus email included in the DEO alert in the form of an email address, Rewing0147@gmail.com.

She decided to play a hunch and use the four digits in the email as a PIN for her unemployment account, she said it worked but not for long.

“I was ecstatic and I went in and changed all my information,” she said. “Two hours later I got an email that it was changed again.”

In fact, the cat and mouse game played out 27 times until she was locked out of her own account.

“Somebody hacked into my unemployment account and as a result, I have been punished for that every single day,” she said.

COVID-19 forced the Fort Lauderdale Beach restaurant manager and bartender out of work. With three young children, she said there was no way she could work since day care was not available.

Crespo said the bills are mounting and with just one income -- her husband works 17 hours a day -- they need the nearly $6,000 in back benefits that she says were stolen by a computer program.

News 6 presented the case to the U.S. Secret Service and the DEO’s Reemployment team.

Special Agent in Charge Caroline O’Brien-Buster said the evidence is compelling.

“It’s not like someone on the other side of the keyboard is saying ‘Aha! I’m going to change it back again,’” O’Brien-Buster said. “It’s all pre-programmed.”

The DEO’s Fraud Division reviewed the case and contacted Crespo on Monday.

Her account has been unlocked and benefits have been restored.

“We are very grateful. This never would have happened if you didn’t get involved,” she said.

If you have an unemployment issue email makeendsmeet@wkmg.com or text make ends meet to 407-676-7428.

About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.