Southern California woman used prisoners’ names to steal $515,000 in pandemic aid, feds say

A woman in a mask and gloves stands outside a closed glass door labeled Employment Development Department Job Services
A Victorville woman who was arrested Wednesday filed at least 29 fraudulent applications for pandemic unemployment relief, collecting about $515,000 from the California Employment Development Department and the U.S. Treasury, federal prosecutors said. Above, the EDD office in Canoga Park in May 2020.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A Victorville woman was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of stealing more than $500,000 in pandemic unemployment relief by impersonating people incarcerated in California’s state prisons, federal authorities said.

Cynthia Ann Hernandez, 32, also known as Cynthia Roberts, is charged with four counts of mail fraud, two counts of aggravated identity theft and one count of access device fraud in excess of $1,000, according to a federal grand jury indictment filed Thursday.

From June to August 2020, Hernandez filed fraudulent applications for pandemic-related unemployment insurance benefits with the California Employment Development Department, according to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California, which serves seven counties, among them Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside.


She used the names of people incarcerated in the state prison system in the applications, claiming that the applicants lived in Los Angeles and Orange counties, prosecutors said.

State officials authorized Bank of America to issue debit cards in the names of the people listed in the applications, prosecutors said. The cards were mailed to Hernandez, who allegedly used the cards to withdraw cash at ATMs and banking centers.

Most of the money will be turned over to the U.S. government because the claims went through a federal pandemic assistance program, state officials said.

June 21, 2022

In all, Hernandez filed at least 29 fraudulent applications, “resulting in losses to EDD and the [U.S. Department of the Treasury] of approximately $515,138,” prosecutors said.

She is scheduled for arraignment in U.S. District Court in Riverside on Thursday.

Hernandez’s arrest comes as state and federal officials continue investigating widespread pandemic-related fraud.

State officials announced in June that they’d recovered $1.1 billion in illegally obtained unemployment insurance funds.

“Fraudsters and criminal organizations ripped off California, along with every other state, during one of the worst crises in history,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at the time. “We’re taking aggressive action to return that money to the taxpayers.”


EDD officials were overwhelmed with unemployment benefit applications at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic after Newsom issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order, which forced many businesses to close.

Since then, the agency received at least 26.4 million claims and paid $180 billion in benefits. But about $20 billion of those payments went to scammers who posed as prison inmates — or, in one instance, faked being Sen. Dianne Feinstein — to fool state officials into sending them checks.

L.A. couple facing prison for stealing $18 million in a pandemic relief scam took a private jet to the Balkans and vanished into a posh town on the Mediterranean.

July 21, 2022

Among the most high-profile fraud cases was that of Richard Ayvazyan, his wife, Marietta Terabelian, and his sister-in-law Tamara Dadyan.

The Tarzana couple and their family member operated a massive COVID-19 relief fraud ring that netted $18 million in a scam to secure emergency pandemic loans meant for small businesses upended by lockdowns.

Their operation did not involve unemployment insurance fraud.

The trio were eventually captured in February in Montenegro, where they’d been living a life of luxury while hiding from the FBI.