A Riverside County woman was sentenced Friday to more than three years in prison after she used stolen identities to get more than $500,000 in COVID-19-related unemployment benefits, federal officials said.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 33, of Menifee found dozens of people’s birthdays and social security numbers on the dark web and used the stolen information to apply for benefits from the California Employment Development Department from May to October 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release.
The woman had watched instructional videos on YouTube on how to commit unemployment insurance fraud, officials said.
Police first arrested Kirk-Connell in Murietta in September 2020, when officers stopped her vehicle and found eight EDD debit cards in other people’s names in her possession.
At the time, officials said some of the cards in her possession each had more than $17,000 loaded on them.
The traffic stop came one day after Kirk-Connell used EDD debit cards to withdraw more than $1,000 in cash, officials said.
The woman was arrested again the following month, but that time it was by federal agents.
The feds found four EDD debit cards in victims’ names in her purse, and another four debit cards in her car trunk, along with about $10,000 in cash, according to the news release.
Kirk-Connell pleaded guilty in December last year to a single-count information charging her with use of an unauthorized access device, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
She was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for the fraud.
“During the COVID pandemic over the past year, criminals have robbed the state of California of billions [of dollars] by engaging in identity theft to fraudulently obtain unemployment benefits from EDD,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum. “[Kirk-Connell] was part of that scourge.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic started, the CARES Act expanded unemployment benefits to cover Californians who were previously weren’t eligible.
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 in jails and prisons.