Inland Empire trio plead guilty in $1.2-million COVID-19 unemployment fraud
An Inland Empire woman pleaded guilty Monday to a federal fraud charge, admitting that she collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in bogus COVID-related unemployment benefits on behalf of California prison inmates.
Paris Thomas, 33, of San Bernardino used dozens of prisoners’ and other people’s identities to collect $477,000 in illicit payments from the state agency that processes unemployment payments, according to a plea agreement she made with prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office.
In pleading guilty, Thomas joined two other women who admitted to running the same scam.
On Friday, Sequoia Edwards, 35, of Moreno Valley and Mireya Ramos, 42, of Colton each pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud.
Together, the women collected $1.2 million in unemployment payments in the names of more than 100 people, most of whom were inmates.
The women kept a share of the money and sent the rest to others believed to be involved in the schemes, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors did not say whether inmates received money.
Each woman could face up to 30 years in prison when they are sentenced this summer. As part of their agreements with prosecutors, they must forfeit assets equal to the payments they received.
Their cases are part of a rash of unemployment fraud schemes that have occurred around the state as California received billions of dollars in federal aid to blunt the pandemic’s effect on workers and their families.
State officials estimate that at least $810 million in false unemployment claims were filed on behalf of California prison inmates. Investigators say overall unemployment fraud losses in the state could top at least $11 billion.
Scams like the one Thomas and the other women ran have led to prosecutions across the state, including an Orange County case in which two murderers and four other state prisoners were charged in January with filing fraudulent unemployment claims that netted nearly half a million dollars.
Thomas was arrested in April after investigators identified 15 inmates for whom she submitted claims between June and December, according to her plea agreement.
In the applications, Thomas described the prisoners as barbers, carpet cleaners and painters who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. In one claim, she sought more than $20,000, according to the agreement.
During a search of Thomas’ home in February, investigators seized debit cards issued by the state’s Employment Development Department and a notebook filled with information about more than 40 people, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
In an interview with FBI agents, Thomas acknowledged the ploy.
“I did it, and it just was to have extra money,” she said.
Edwards is accused of filing at least 27 fraudulent claims over two months last summer, including six in which she used the identities of California prison inmates that she allegedly received from an incarcerated cousin, according to her plea agreement in the case. She admitted to netting $456,000 through the fraudulent claims.
A search at Edwards’ Moreno Valley home in February led the FBI to recover several of the state-issued debit cards in various names and $45,000 in cash, according to the affidavit filed in support of her criminal complaint.
Ramos allegedly filed 37 fraudulent claims, most of which were in the names of inmates and many of which falsely said they were “barbers who could not work due to the pandemic.”
She obtained the inmates’ information from her boyfriend, who is serving a life sentence in Calipatria State Prison, prosecutors said in court records.
A notebook at her home included details about all the inmates she filed claims for across California prisons. Between June last year and January, at least $353,532 in unemployment benefits were paid out on claims she filed.
State lawmakers have severely criticized the EDD, saying many of the phony claims were preventable if the agency had taken precautions implemented in other states, including using more sophisticated software to identify suspect applications, keeping Social Security numbers out of official mail and cross-checking benefit claims against personal data on state prison inmates — steps that are routine in many other states.
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