California woman admits to $500K COVID-relief fraud, says she watched YouTube ‘how to’ videos

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A California Employment Development Department building is seen in a photo posted on the agency’s Flickr account in September 2018.

MENIFEE, Calif. (KTLA) – A Southern California woman pleaded guilty Wednesday to fraudulently obtaining more than half a million dollars in COVID-related unemployment benefits, nearly $270,000 of which she spent.

Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 32, of Menifee, admitted to buying stolen identities from people with access to the darknet and using the data to submit claims to the state Employment Development Department, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California. She also confessed to watching YouTube videos that show people how to commit EDD fraud, prosecutors said.

Murrieta police arrested Kirk-Connell on Sept. 11 during a traffic stop, during which officers found eight EDD debit cards bearing other people’s names, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. The day before, she withdrew more than $1,000 in cash using fraudulently obtained debit cards, according to officials.

On Oct. 9, when federal law enforcement officers arrested the defendant, she had four EDD debit cards under victims’ names, four more in her car trunk and about $10,000 in cash, her plea agreement said.

According to the agreement, Kirk-Connell used about 50 unauthorized devices to access about $534,149 in benefits from May to October.

Kirk-Connell is scheduled to be sentenced on April 9, 2021. She could face up to 10 years in federal prison.

As many people lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s unemployment benefits system faced a surge of false claims. Officials with Bank of America, which was contracted by the state to issue debit cards containing benefits, said earlier in December that the fraud could total $2 billion.

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