SAN DIEGO – On December 17, 2020, a former contract employee with California’s Employment Development Department, which administers the state’s unemployment insurance program, was charged in federal court with fraud and identity theft in connection with a scheme to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic unemployment aid.
“Investigators from local, state and federal agencies will be very busy investigating unemployment benefits fraud for quite some time,” said California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) President Alan Barcelona. “They are working to preserve assistance that is meant for those greatly impacted by this unprecedented time. There are Californians who are truly suffering due to unemployment and assistance is meant for them and their families. This alleged scheme is an assault on those trying to make ends meet and put food on the table.”
Nyika Gomez, 40, of San Diego, was arrested at her home December 16th and charged in a criminal complaint unsealed December 17th.
According to the complaint, Gomez conspired with her boyfriend, a prisoner serving a term of 94 years to life at California State Prison, Sacramento for murder, to submit fraudulent pandemic unemployment insurance claims for California state prisoners and out-of-state residents whose identifying information was stolen.
Gomez’s job at the Employment Development Department (EDD) involved assisting unemployed Californians to qualify for benefits. As alleged in the complaint, she used her training and expertise to defraud that very program in a scheme designed to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen benefits.
As part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, Congress provided new unemployment benefits for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic who would not otherwise qualify for unemployment insurance.
According to the criminal complaint, in July 2020, Gomez was employed by an EDD contractor as a call center agent where she helped individuals process their unemployment insurance claims. In that position, Gomez received training in EDD’s procedures and regulations, and she had access to confidential information regarding EDD’s unemployment insurance program.
According to the complaint, Gomez used that knowledge to submit fraudulent unemployment insurance claims using personal identifying information (PII) she acquired from California prisoners, with help from her inmate boyfriend. With his help, she was also able to purchase stolen PII from out-of-state residents, which she used to submit additional fraudulent unemployment claims.
Gomez allegedly arranged for the stolen benefits – paid out in the form of a debit card – to be mailed directly to her residence, or to the residence of someone working with her. Gomez returned some of the proceeds to the prison inmates by transferring money to their prison accounts.
In the statement of facts submitted for the criminal complaint, agents describe how they obtained video surveillance recordings of Gomez using the fraudulently obtained debit cards at bank ATMs. For example, in one photo from an ATM video taken on July 23, 2020. Gomez is said to be withdrawing $1,000 on a debit card issued to a California prison inmate.
The charges are the product of an investigation jointly undertaken by the:
- U.S. Department of Labor,
- Office of the Inspector General (DOL-OIG),
- California Employment Development Department Office of Investigations (EDD OI),
- United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS),
- and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Investigators initiated an investigation after noting several unemployment insurance benefit claims originating from Gomez’s own computer and using her own residence as the claimant’s address. Investigators also obtained consensually monitored recorded calls between Gomez and her boyfriend discussing the scheme and supplying Gomez with PII of prison inmates. A court-authorized search of Gomez residence also revealed that she possessed, and was using, two of the debit cards that were issued for claims by prison inmates.