LAKE HIAWATHA, New Jersey (WABC) -- Millions of Americans were forced into unemployment when businesses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Some people considered essential workers kept working, including a teacher from Lake Hiawatha who was surprised to learn someone had stolen her ID and started collecting unemployment benefits in her name.
She was being forced to pay back thousands, until she turned to 7 On Your Side.
"There's so much uncertainty in general, and to have this thrown into the mix is just overwhelming," Vanessa Bellardini said.
With COVID-19, the election and planning wedding during a pandemic, getting a letter about owing money to the state was the last thing she wanted to deal with.
"I owed over $5,000 back to the government," she said.
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The notice ordered her to pay back the total overpayment, including fines, of $5,320 for unemployment benefits, $380 a week every week since June 13.
"It was like a kick to the gut," she said.
Belladini had never applied for unemployment, in fact, she never stopped seeing students as a school counselor during the crisis.
She masked up, continuing working not one but three jobs helping kids with special needs.
"We worked through June, and then we did the summer school in july, we were back at it in September," she said.
Even worse, the criminal who stole her identity claimed she was doing it because of COVID, that she needed to take care of a sick family member.
"She's a great person and didn't deserve to have her identity taken to get a couple hundred bucks a week," fiance Joe Ott said.
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A simple check to her employer would have confirmed she never quit, as the state has on record. And with their wedding on hold, unafffordable.
"For us to pay back this $5,000 at this time, when we've already dumped deposits into the venue, the photographer, the videographer, the band, it's like, there's no more money for something like this," Ott said.
So they threw a Hail Mary to 7 On Your Side.
"I was not getting anywhere on my own," Bellardini said. "I have always watched Channel 7, and I know that you help people."
We talked to the New Jersey State Office of Unemployment about the toll on the teacher with the dubious debt, and the fraud was foiled.
"Absolute relief," Bellardini said about learning she was off the hook. "Thank you. I am so grateful."
Her bogus benefit payback was wiped clean.
"I said, 'Thank the lord and ABC,'" Ott said. "You guys rule."
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7 On Your Side: Identity theft leaves NJ couple on the hook for $5,000 in fraudulent unemployment benefits
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