A Menifee woman was arrested on federal charges Friday, Oct. 9, alleging she defrauded the state unemployment insurance system of more than $500,000 in COVID-19 unemployment benefits.
It’s an increasingly common crime, authorities say.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 32, was named in a federal criminal complaint that charges her with identity theft, mail fraud and access device fraud, the federal Department of Justice said in a news release. She is due in court on Oct. 13 in Riverside.
According to an affidavit filed with the complaint, Murrieta police conducted a traffic stop of Kirk-Connell on Sept. 11. A search of the car resulted in the seizure of eight debit cards that contained unemployment benefits in other people’s names, as well as more than $30,000 in cash and several driver’s licenses for other motorists.
The affidavit said that Kirk-Connell admitted to investigators that she obtained the information from the “dark web” — the part of the internet that is invisible to search engines where such information is often illegally sold.
Kirk-Connell then used the stolen identities to apply for unemployment benefits from the California Employment Development Department, which distributes the benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March, the release said.
Kirk-Connell admitted that she would have the debit cards that were loaded with unemployment benefits sent to an address where she would receive them, the affidavit says. She would activate them by using the victims’ Social Security numbers and PINs and then withdraw money from ATMs, according to the affidavit.
State records showed that $534,149 in unemployment payments had been authorized for Kirk-Connell’s various identities and that she had spent $270,000.
If convicted as charged, Kirk-Connell faces a maximum sentence of 32 years in federal prison.
Separately, the Riverside Police Department said it has received a significant increase in calls about residents receiving mail from the Employment Development Department in other person’s names or from people whose identities have been stolen to acquire fraudulent unemployment benefits.
“Be aware that suspects of this mail fraud scheme are showing up at homes and taking the incoming and returned mail from the mailboxes. Some residents have even been contacted at their home, then coerced and threatened into relinquishing the EDD mail,” police said in a news release that urged people to tell them if they receive such mail.
The California Policy Lab at UCLA and the Labor Market Information Division at the Employment Development Department studied the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program with an emphasis on California and found a “surge of potentially fraudulent PUA claims.”
For example, according to the New York Times, “21 inmates in the San Mateo County jail filed for pandemic unemployment assistance, resulting in payments of at least $250,000, according to the district attorney.”
And Beverly Hills police said they have recovered 129 fraudulently obtained benefits debit cards with a value of more than $2.5 million.