2 plead guilty in COVID-19 unemployment benefit fraud scheme

Crime Watch

FRESNO, Calif. (KGET) — Two people pleaded guilty Monday to submitting fraudulent unemployment insurance claims in a scheme to get money intended for Californians hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, according to federal officials.

Jason Vertz, 51, of Fresno, and Alana Powers, 45, an inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, each pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and aggravated identity theft.

The two submitted fraudulent claims to the state’s Employment Development Department using Powers’ and other inmates’ names, according to court documents.

“Recorded jail calls and emails show that Powers and other inmates provided names, dates of birth, and social security numbers for inmates at CCWF to Vertz to submit the fraudulent claims,” said a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of California. “Shortly thereafter, the benefits were loaded onto debit cards that were mailed to the addresses the defendants provided.”

The inmates said in the applications that they had worked during a stated time period as maids, cleaners and fabrication welders, among other professions, when in fact they had been incarcerated, according to the release. EDD lost more than $103,000 as a result of the fraud.

Vertz and Powers are scheduled for sentencing July 6 and face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy charge, and a two-year consecutive sentence on the aggravated identity theft charge.

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