HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — More people are getting their lottery winnings back after Scripps News Tampa stepped in to help. The money was held up by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), the state's unemployment office, after thousands of Floridians went to collect their prize money.
"Something that was so exciting became an absolute nightmare," Sara Magnetta said. "This felt like this could hit home for a lot of people.”
Magnetta received a form at the lottery office saying she was overpaid in unemployment and owed the DEO money. Because of that, she could not collect the $1,000 prize she won.
After sharing Magnetta and Sara Brook's similar stories and contacting DEO on their behalf, both women learned they would be getting all of their lottery money back from the state.
Since then, more than 70 people have contacted Scripps News Tampa saying the same thing happened to them. They won the lottery, but they were unable to collect the money because they owed the state unemployment money. Most of them said that they had no idea they owed money and could never reach anyone at DEO for answers.
Hilde McMillen was one of them.
“I said, ‘Well that’s me! That actually happened to me!’” McMillen said, after seeing the story on TV.
Scripps News Tampa has sent the names and information of everyone who reached out straight to DEO. Around 10 people have now followed up, saying DEO called and told them they will be getting all of the money back.
For years, 82-year-old McMillen worked in the gift shop of a nearby hotel.
“I worked at the Double Tree, and my day, every day, is get up early," McMillen said.
When the hotel shut down for a period of time at the beginning of the pandemic, she collected unemployment. But later, the state notified her that she had been overpaid around $200.
“My daughter-in-law helped me, and we sent it in right away. And that was the end, I never heard nothing no more until I won my fortune here," McMillen said of her $1,000 win.
For McMillen, who cares for her adult son with special needs, this was her first big win.
“Oh my God, I was excited! At that time, yeah, I needed the money," she said.
The excitement was short-lived.
“They told me they’re not going to pay me. Because I had an overpayment on my unemployment, I say I can’t believe that, I say, I paid that already," McMillen said.
She then called DEO.
“Took almost three hours to get them and the lady was very nice, but she couldn’t help us with nothing," McMillen said. “They held me hostage from my own money."
Public records obtained from the Florida Lottery reveal between Jan. 1, 2022 and Jan. 31, 2023, 9,804 winners received a "potential outstanding owed debt alert." More than 7,400, 75% of those debt alerts, were from DEO.
“My $1,000 was sitting at the unemployment office and nobody did nothing. Until we seen your segment on TV," McMillen said.
Her daughter-in-law filled out a form Scripps News Tampa's website that was forwarded to the state.
“Two days later, the unemployment office called me and said, we’re going to send you your money. And then two days later, they called me again and told me when I’m going to get it. I mean it happened like that," McMillen said, snapping her finger.
She said she is also getting back the roughly $200 she already paid DEO.
“So, in other words, I didn’t owe them nothing," McMillen said.
She never did.
McMillen received a letter from DEO over the summer saying, "You were without fault in creating this overpayment and the department has determined that recovery would be contrary to equity and good conscience."
In a statement, DEO told Scripps News Tampa overpayment procedures are in place to mitigate fraud, but it realizes that "just because an overpayment is flagged in an account, it does not mean that an overpayment has occurred," saying many result from an incomplete claim.
DEO said people should log on to their unemployment accounts to check for any notifications and make sure contact information is updated.
This article was written by Kylie McGivern for Scripps News Tampa.