SANTA ANA, California – A Riverside County woman was arrested today on federal charges that she defrauded California’s unemployment insurance system by using stolen personal information obtained from the darknet to fraudulently receive more than a half-million dollars in COVID-19 unemployment benefits.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 32, of Menifee, was named in a federal criminal complaint that charges her with identity theft, mail fraud, and access device fraud. She is expected to make her initial appearance on October 13 in United States District Court in Riverside.
According to an affidavit filed with the complaint, on September 11, Murrieta police conducted a traffic stop of Kirk-Connell. A search of the car resulted in the seizure of eight debit cards that contained unemployment benefits in other people’s names, as well as more than $30,000 in cash and several driver’s licenses for other motorists, the affidavit states. When interviewed by police, Kirk-Connell allegedly admitted that she and others would go onto the “dark web” to gather identifying information of other individuals.
She allegedly then used this information to apply for unemployment benefits from the California Employment Development Department, which distributes the benefits under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March. 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.
In addition, Kirk-Connell admitted that once she had applied for those benefits in other people’s names, she would have the debit cards sent to an address where she would receive them, the affidavit states. Once she received the debit cards, she said, she would activate them by using the victims’ Social Security numbers as well as PINs she had chosen, and then make numerous ATM withdrawals and other expenditures, according to the affidavit.
EDD records showed that the cards and identities that Kirk-Connell possessed had been used to apply for and authorize approximately $534,149 in COVID-related unemployment benefits from California’s EDD program, of which nearly $270,000 had already been spent, the affidavit states. Further, EDD records showed that some of the individual cards had more than $17,000 loaded on them when issued, according to the affidavit.
A complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
If convicted of these charges, Kirk-Connell would face a statutory maximum sentence of 32 years in federal prison.
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 is prosecuting this case.