Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been fraudulently taken in two separate schemes that targeted California Employment Development Department unemployment insurance benefits that were intended for Californians hit hardest by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
A federal grand jury in Fresno returned an indictment involving a prison-based scheme out of the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla.
Inmate Sholanda Thomas, 36, and parolee Christina Smith, 37, were indicted for conspiracy to commit mail fraud and aggravated identity theft charges for the submission of several fraudulent EDD unemployment insurance claims in Thomas’ and other CCWF inmates’ names.
Recorded jail calls and emails show that Thomas and others engaged in “bundling,” that is, they obtained the names, dates of birth, and social security numbers for inmates at CCWF and relayed that information to Smith to submit the fraudulent claims. The claims were submitted shortly thereafter, and the benefits were loaded onto debit cards that were mailed to the addresses provided.
The underlying applications for the claims falsely stated that the inmates had worked within the prescribed period as hairstylists, barbers, and other occupations, and that they were available to work, which was not true because they were incarcerated. The claims would have been denied if accurate answers had been given. EDD and the United States have suffered a loss of over $200,000 as a result of the fraud.
Thomas and Smith used the proceeds for their own benefit, which included Smith keeping Thomas’ share in a shoebox pending Thomas’ release from prison, and Smith getting plastic surgery.
In the second scheme, Andrea M. Gervais, 43, of Roseville – a former Employment Development Department employee – allegedly participated in a mail fraud scheme involving approximately 100 fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims in the names of persons other than Gervais.
According to the criminal complaint, at least 12 of the 100 claims were processed for payment, and over $200,000 in PUA benefits were paid out to Gervais’s Roseville address in the form of Bank of America debit cards. The total value of all fraudulent PUA claims from her residence was at least $2 million.
The investigation began when investigators discovered a PUA claim using the identity of a sitting United States Senator for approximately $21,000. This fraudulent claim was processed for payment, and Gervais received a PUA debit card in the United States Senator’s name. Investigators further discovered that Bank of America ATM cameras captured Gervais on multiple occasions withdrawing cash from at least seven of the PUA debit cards, and at least one captured transaction showed Gervais using the debit card issued to the United States Senator.
If convicted, Thomas and Smith face a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and a mandatory and additional two-year prison sentence if convicted of aggravated identity theft. If convicted,
Gervais faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison for mail fraud.