LOS ANGELES – A Riverside County woman was sentenced today to 37 months in federal prison for fraudulently obtaining more than $500,000 in COVID-19-related unemployment benefits by using the stolen personal information of dozens of individuals obtained from the darknet.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 33, of Menifee, was sentenced by United States District Judge André Birotte, Jr. Kirk-Connell pleaded guilty in December 2020 to a single-count information charging her with use of an unauthorized access device.
From May to October 2020, Kirk-Connell used personal information – such as dates of birth and Social Security numbers – that she knew had been stolen and accessed via the darknet. Kirk-Connell, who also watched YouTube instructional videos on how to commit unemployment insurance fraud, then used the stolen information and identities to apply for unemployment insurance benefits from the California Employment Development Department (EDD).
When Murietta police arrested Kirk-Connell in September 2020 during a traffic stop, she possessed eight EDD debit cards in other people’s names. The day before her arrest, Kirk-Connell used fraudulently obtained EDD debit cards to withdraw more than $1,000 in cash. When federal law enforcement arrested Kirk-Connell the following month, she possessed in her purse four EDD debit cards in victims’ names, four additional debit cards in victims’ names in her car trunk, and approximately $10,000 in cash.
“During the COVID pandemic over the past year, criminals have robbed the state of California of billions [of dollars] by engaging in identity theft to fraudulently obtain unemployment benefits from EDD,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum. “[Kirk-Connell] was part of that scourge.”
The California EDD distributes unemployment benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March 2020. The CARES Act expanded unemployment benefits to cover those who were previously ineligible, including business owners, self-employed workers, and independent contractors, who were put out of business or significantly reduced their services because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This investigation, which is a result of the Department of Justice’s National Unemployment Insurance Fraud Task Force, was conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor – Office of Inspector General, IRS Criminal Investigation, and the United States Postal Inspection Service. California EDD Criminal Investigations and the Murrieta Police Department provided substantial assistance.
Assistant United States Attorney Charles E. Pell of the Santa Ana Branch Office prosecuted this case.
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