A Riverside County woman was arrested Friday on suspicion of fraudulently getting more than a half-million dollars in unemployment benefits using stolen information from the darknet, officials said.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 32, of Menifee, was charged with identity theft, mail fraud and access device fraud. She faces a statutory maximum sentence of 32 years in federal prison.
The woman was taken into custody after officers in Murrieta stopped her car and found that she had with her eight unemployment benefits debit cards in other people’s names, several people’s driver’s licenses and more than $30,000 in cash, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office news release.
Kirk-Connell told the officers that she and others used the dark web to get people’s information, which she then used to apply for benefits from the California Employment Development Department, officials said.
The EDD would then send her debit cards that she activated using people’s Social Security numbers. She used the cards to make numerous ATM withdrawals, officials say the woman told police.
Some of the cards each had more than $17,000 loaded on them when they were sent out.
All together, the cards had been used to apply for and authorize about $534,149 in benefits — nearly $270,000 of which has already been spent, according to the news release.
With the pandemic shuttering businesses and leaving many more Californians jobless, there’s been increased demand for unemployment benefits, and with it, a surge in fraud.
Beverly Hills police arrested 44 people suspected of unemployment benefit fraud and identity theft last month, recovering 129 fraudulent EDD debit cards that together had over $2.5 million.
In September, the EDD went on a pause, not accepting new unemployment claims for two weeks as the state worked to reduce the backlog and prevent fraud with “ID.me,” a new identity verification tool that requires applicants to upload identifying documents and a selfie.
Officials said the new tool will stop scammers “much earlier than through today’s follow up process involving notices through the mail.”
Issues have plagued the EDD for months as it was overwhelmed by millions of claims for unemployment benefits and its officials faced backlash for long processing times.
When the agency paused processing claims, there were about 1.6 million people still waiting for their claims to be processed, the Associated Press reported.