Female trio charged with fraud over COVID benefits to inmates

Federal prosecutors have charged three Inland Empire women in separate schemes in which they allegedly raked in a combined $1.2 million in COVID-related unemployment benefits using the names of California inmates who they pretended were unemployed due to the pandemic.

Sequoia Edwards, 35, of Moreno Valley; Mireya Ramos, 42, of Colton; and Paris Thomas, 33, of San Bernardino, are charged in separate criminal complaints, and each woman faces two counts — fraud in connection with gathering benefits and committing wire fraud, authorities said.

The women are part of a rash of pandemic-related unemployment fraud schemes that have occurred around the state during the past year, with at least $8`10 million in unemployment benefit claims improperly filed in the names of California prison inmates, authorities said. Investigators say overall fraud losses will top at least $11 billion.

The fraud schemes have resulted in prosecutions across the state, including one Orange County case involving, among others, two convicted murders and four other California state prisoners who were charged in January with filing fraudulent unemployment claims that netted nearly a half-million dollars.

In the Inland Empire case, Edwards is accused of filing at least 27 fraudulent claims over the course of two months last summer, including six claims using the information of California prison inmates she allegedly got from her incarcerated cousin, according to an affidavit in the case.

California’s Employment Development Department paid $455,000 on those claims that were intended to help those who were out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those incarcerated were not eligible for the money.

A search at Edwards’ Moreno Valley home in February led the FBI to recover several debit cards issued by the EDD in various names and $45,000 in cash, according to the affidavit in support of her criminal complaint.

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 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. Cross-checking is routine in 35 other states.

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.” The affidavit in support of Ramos’ criminal complaint says she obtained the inmates’ information from her longtime boyfriend David Ortiz, who is currently serving a life sentence in Calipatria State Prison.

A notebook at her home included details about all the inmates she filed claims for across California prisons. Between last June and January, EDD issued at least $353,532 in unemployment benefits on claims alleged created by Ramos. According to an affidavit, those claims all came from an IP address registered to Ramos.

Ramos appeared in court Thursday afternoon and was released on a $10,000 bond. Her arraignment hearing is scheduled for May 4.

Thomas was arrested in connection with 49 fraudulent applications, of which at least 15 were in the names of inmates, resulting in the EDD paying out more than $440,000, authorities said. Thomas is alleged to have described those inmates as barbers, carpet cleaners and painters who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

During a search of Thomas’ San Bernardino home in February, investigators seized EDD cards and a notebook filled with personally identifiable information for more than 40 people, according to an affidavit in the case.

In an FBI interview, Thomas acknowledged helping people with getting benefits. “I did it, and it just was to have extra money,” she said.

A U.S. magistrate judge released Thomas on a $10,000 bond and ordered her to appear for an arraignment hearing on May 11.