SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A federal grand jury returned a 17-count indictment Thursday against Hopelyn Rhiannon Ausk, 24, of Stockton, charging her with mail fraud, bank fraud, aggravated identity theft, possession of stolen U.S. mail, unlawful possession of U.S. Postal Service keys, and obstruction of justice, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced.
According to court documents, Ausk engaged in two separate fraud schemes that caused significant harm to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Unemployment Insurance program and identity-theft victims throughout Northern California. First, in 2020, she perpetrated a mail fraud scheme that targeted the Unemployment Insurance benefit program that California administers through its Employment Development Department (EDD). Under the 2020 CARES Act and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, EDD is responsible for administering unemployment insurance benefits for qualifying residents who can no longer find employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ausk obtained the personally identifiable information (PII) of at least 20 individuals and filed fraudulent unemployment insurance benefit claims under their identities. EDD approved many of these applications and mailed benefits in the form of prepaid debit cards to addresses under Ausk’s control. Once received in the mail, she activated the cards and spent the benefits on herself.
“The EDD is committed to doing everything possible to protect the unemployment insurance program and the essential benefits it provides to Californians in need,” said EDD Director Sharon Hilliard. “We are grateful for the partnership with law enforcement and other agencies at the federal, state and local level to expose, charge, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.”
Second, in 2019 and 2020, Ausk perpetrated a bank fraud scheme that involved theft of U.S. mail, identity theft, and fraudulent use of stolen bank cards. Ausk manufactured counterfeit U.S. Postal Service keys to break into cluster mailboxes and steal mail containing victim PII, financial information, and bank cards. She then used the bank cards and victim accounts to obtain cash and purchase merchandise for herself. Some of the stolen mail also included U.S. Economic Impact Payment checks (i.e., stimulus checks) mailed to California residents.
Ausk is also charged with obstruction of justice because, as alleged in the indictment, she corruptly obstructed, influenced, and impeded an official proceeding, and attempted to do so, by warning criminal associates about the existence and course of a criminal investigation and prosecution and directing those criminal associates to destroy evidence.
This case is the product of an investigation by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Stockton Police Department with assistance from the California Employment Development Department, Investigation Division. Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Artuz is prosecuting the case.
If convicted, Ausk faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison for mail fraud, 30 years in prison for bank fraud, and 20 years in prison for obstruction of justice. Ausk also faces a mandatory additional sentence of two years in prison if convicted of aggravated identity theft. She also faces a maximum fine of $250,000 on each count. Any sentence, however, would be determined at the discretion of the court after consideration of any applicable statutory factors and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which take into account a number of variables. The charges are only allegations; the defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.