More than 1.4M Californians can still claim inflation relief funds. Here's how

ByMichael Finney KGO logo
Tuesday, May 9, 2023
$750M in California inflation relief payments still unclaimed
Now that the California Middle Class Tax Refund program is over, it turns out millions of dollars never were claimed. Many still have money coming.

SAN FRANCISCO -- You wouldn't think it would be hard to give away billions of dollars for free... but the state government ran into more than its share of obstacles when it sent out inflation relief payments to millions of Californians last fall.

Now that the program is over, it turns out millions of dollars never were claimed. Many still have money coming.

The saga of the Middle Class Tax Refund is still going on. The state sent out payments up to $350 per person beginning last fall. Millions got their payments on a debit card from a New York bank -- but many thought it was junk mail; others didn't trust the bank, and then hackers began draining money off the cards. Now 7 On Your Side has learned thousands of Californians never got their money.

Many Californians were skeptical when they received a debit card in the mail -- a California Middle Class Tax Refund issued by a bank... in New York?

"I honestly thought it was a scam," said Doris Beers of San Francisco. "I almost threw it out."

"What do I do with this card?" Al Ginsburg, also from San Francisco, asked. "It wants me to give six digits of my Social Security number. That's not safe."

RELATED: Scammers drain growing number of Middle Class Tax Refund cards

It was a gift from the state to ease inflation... but not without snags.

An ATM swallowed one man's card before he could cash it. "It just sucked it up. It was gone," said Don Brendel of San Francisco.

Worse, many found that scammers had drained the cards before they could use them.

"'You have zero balance,'" quoted San Rafael resident Tom Koerber. "Well, I said, I guess we've been hacked."

"It wiped out my complete account, wiped it out," Elizabeth Weber of San Francisco said.

"Apparently these fraudsters are able to drain these accounts without having the cards in their possession," Assemblymember Jim Patterson (R - Fresno) said.

RELATED: Scammers drain Middle Class Tax Refund debit cards without security chips

Many found they could not reach the debit card company, Money Network, to solve their problems.

"Complete waste of time. No matter which button you push, it says 'due to the volume of calls we cannot answer, goodbye,'" Elizabeth Weber said.

And now that the program has ended, another hitch.

Nearly one and a half million Californians just got a letter from the state, saying they never cashed in their inflation relief debit cards.

"I was surprised because I never got the card," said Jennie Chien of San Francisco. "It said, you haven't activated your card yet. So I'm like, okay, I didn't get the card."

RELATED: IRS announces California's 'Middle Class Tax Refund' will not be subject to federal taxes

Shelley Graham of Alamo was baffled when she saw the notice. "So when we got the letter saying we hadn't activated that, I thought, okay, well, never got it."

Data from the Franchise Tax Board show it mailed out 9.6 million debit cards, but 15% were never activated. That means roughly $750 million dollars is left unclaimed by those who are entitled to it. The cards expire in 2026. After that the money goes back to the state.

"So I called the number, went through the prompts," Graham said.

But there's a problem: the letter says to call Money Network and claim your refund. But the old problem persists: folks can't get through.

"Only to get a message saying, 'due to high call volume, we can't talk to you now.' And click,'" Graham said.

"It says, your call is important to us. But due to the volume of the calls we're receiving, then, you know, we can't answer your call," Chien said. "I waited on hold for about 35, 40 minutes. I give up. You know, I just said forget it."

RELATED: Hackers took their Middle Class Tax Refunds and now victims are getting a tax bill

"If you are calling about a letter you have just received stating you have not activated your debit card, press one," the recording said with Chien on the line.

Chien thought she was getting results.

But the recording said: "This line is for relay operators only. If you are not a relay operator, hang up and call 1-800-240-0223."

But that was the number she'd just called... the prompts led her in circles.

"So I contacted 7 On Your Side," Graham said. "And I thought, somebody's got to have a way to do this. This is ridiculous."

RELATED: Couple tries everything after ATM 'eats' their $700 inflation relief debit card

7 On Your Side contacted the Franchise Tax Board, which is distributing the refunds. And Money Network changed the phone prompts, so Graham and Chien finally got through -- and received their debit cards.

A little late, but still welcome.

"It's nice to know that. we have somebody like 7 On Your Side who's pulling for the people," Graham said.

Money Network has now received more than 22 million phone calls since last October to resolve all the problems with lost cards, stolen cards, fraud, and more. If you got a letter saying you never activated your card, and you don't have your card, here's how to claim your money: contact Money Network at 1-800-240-0223. Be sure to follow prompts for "lost card" (not customer service). If you do have a card, call the same number, follow prompts to activate it. We helped several viewers get through to claim their refund. If you have trouble let us know -- we can help.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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