3 SoCal women arrested after using inmate information to fraudulently apply for COVID jobless aid: DOJ

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In this Aug. 16, 2016, file photo, general population inmates walk in a line at California's San Quentin State Prison. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

In this Aug. 16, 2016, file photo, general population inmates walk in a line at California’s San Quentin State Prison. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Three Inland Empire women were arrested on suspicion of using information from state prisoners to fraudulently file for hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic-related unemployment benefits, federal officials announced Friday.

The women were each responsible for at least $345,000 in benefits issued, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release.

Sequoia Edwards, 35, of Moreno Valley, Mireya Ramos, 42, of Colton, and Paris Thomas, 33, of San Bernardino, were all arrested on different days last week, each facing charges of fraud in connection with emergency benefits and wire fraud, officials said.

Edwards was charged with filing at least 27 fraudulent claims over a two-month period last summer. At least six of the claims were filed using information belonging to California prison inmates that she allegedly got from her incarcerated cousin, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The California Employment Development Department ended up issuing at least $455,000 in benefits connected to Edwards, officials said.

At her home, the FBI in February allegedly recovered several debit cards issued by the EDD and $45,000 in cash.

Meanwhile, Ramos is accused of filing at least 37 of the fraudulent claims, most of which were submitted in the names of prisoners that she got from her boyfriend, who is serving a life sentence at Calipatria State Prison.

Many of the claims falsely said that the applicants were barbers who could not work because of the pandemic, federal officials said. Her applications resulted in the EDD issuing at least $353,532 in unemployment benefits. 

The third woman, Thomas, was arrested on suspicion of filing an estimated 49 fraudulent unemployment insurance applications — at least 15 of which are believed to be filed in the names of people being held in state and federal prisons, as well as county jails.

The fraudulent claims allegedly filed by Thomas led to the EDD disbursing over $440,000 in benefits, according to federal officials.

While searching her home, the FBI seized EDD cards and a notebook filled with the personal information of more than 40 people, authorities said.

“The defendants arrested this week are the latest of approximately 150 defendants who have been charged across the United States in what the Justice Department calls an unprecedented explosion of unemployment insurance (UI) fraud over the past year,” federal officials said in the news release.

Prosecutors in the Central District of California have now charged a dozen defendants with fraudulently obtaining enhanced unemployment benefits during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

After the COVID-19 pandemic started, the CARES Act expanded unemployment benefits to cover Californians who were previously weren’t eligible, but it doesn’t cover the prison inmates.

As demand for jobless aid grew, so did reports of unemployment benefit fraud.

The state unemployment agency was bilked out of hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 unemployment funds, including money that went to inmates and people who don’t live in California.

The charge of fraud in connection with emergency benefits carries a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison, and wire fraud carries a maximum possible penalty of 20 years in prison, according to the Department of Justice.

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