Three San Bernardino County women were arrested Thursday on suspicion of fraudulently collecting about $1 million in federal student aid for more than 200 students that never attended any classes, the California U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Sparkle Shorale Nelson, 32, Shykeena Monique Johnson, 31, a.k.a. “Shy” and Jerrika Eldrena Lashay Johnson, 37, a.k.a. “Muffin,” “Big Sis,” and “Jerrika Carter,” are accused of defrauding the U.S. Department of Education by falsely claiming the so-called students would attend Fullerton College and other schools, authorities said.
The women and other un-indicted co-conspirators got personal identifying information, like names and Social Security numbers, that they used to file applications for federal student aid in 2013 and 2014, with the Department of Education approving more than $1 million in aid, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The vast majority of the 235 ” straw students” whom aid was approved for, never went to classes, and some of the applications were filed under names of people whose identities were stolen or who were inmates in California state prisons, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, citing a 21-count indictment.
After Fullerton College and other schools deducted student fees, the schools disbursed about $977,792 to the “students” via debit cards that were mailed to the defendants and their co-conspirators, authorities said.
“In this particular case, once the defendants had the name, social security number and date of birth of the straw student, that’s all they needed to be able to accomplish their scheme,” California Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Peterson told KTLA.
Authorities said the women used the money to pay for their personal expenses.
In one example, Nelson submitted an application for a student who was a prisoner, then she activated a debit card in the prisoner’s name a month later and used it to make a $370 payment to her Southern California Edison account, the Attorney’s Office said.
Peterson said the scheme was brought to the law enforcements’ attention through community colleges independently identifying suspicious activity in student accounts or through people reporting that their identities had been stolen and used to obtain student aid.
“Sometimes they found out about it from a letter in the mail, in another case, a student may have applied for aid and then was told that an award was already issued in their name,” Peterson said.
It’s unclear when Fullerton College became aware of the alleged fraud.
“Generally speaking, when apparent or suspected fraud is identified, our Financial Aid staff report that information to the Long Beach location of the Office of Inspector General and we fully comply with the investigation,” Fullerton College spokesperson Lisa McPheron said in a written statement.
All three women are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and wire fraud, four counts of mail fraud and 11 counts of wire fraud, as well as additional counts of aggravated identity theft and financial aid fraud, the DOJ said.
If convicted as charges, all three women face a statutory maximum sentences of more than 300 years in federal prison, according to a DOJ news release.
Peterson said the amount stolen in financial aid in this case is larger than usually seen in these types of schemes.
Their arraignment was scheduled for Thursday at a Riverside court.