A 32-year-old Menifee woman accused of committing identity theft to steal over $500,000 in unemployment benefits made available under the federal coronavirus aid bill was charged Friday with mail fraud and other offenses.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell was arrested without incident at her home based on the complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which stemmed from an investigation that began on Sept. 11.
Along with mail fraud, Kirk-Connell is charged with identity theft and access device fraud, specifically debit cards.
Kirk-Connell is in federal custody in Orange County and is slated to make her initial appearance at U.S. District Court in Riverside Tuesday.
According to prosecutors, Kirk-Connell was stopped by Murrieta police officers after an alleged traffic violation in the city on Sept. 11, culminating in a search of her vehicle, where officers allegedly discovered eight California Employment Development Department debit cards bearing other people’s names, along with $30,000 cash and several fake driver’s licenses.
Kirk-Connell was released pending further investigation by U.S. Postal Service inspectors, the EDD’s Fraud Investigation Unit and IRS.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the ensuing investigation revealed that Kirk-Connell used the “dark web” to collect unnamed individuals’ personal information, which was then placed in applications for expanded jobless benefits available under the coronavirus aid bill.
The EDD processed the applications and sent debit cards loaded with relief funds totaling $534,149, prosecutors said. The cards were sent to an address Kirk-Connell had established to receive the EDD benefits, according to court documents.
“Once she received the debit cards … 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 a U.S. Attorney’s Office statement.
By the time of her initial detainment, $270,000 had been spent, prosecutors said.
If convicted, Kirk-Connell could face up to 32 years in federal prison.
Concerns about EDD fraud have been raised by several elected officials, most prominently Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore.
Melendez introduced a proposal for an audit of the EDD before the Legislature adjourned last month, but it was rejected on a party-line vote. She repeatedly urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to order an audit well before his Sept. 20 decision to suspend the processing of all new jobless claims for two weeks because of system overload.
Melendez’s office has received complaints from residents whom she said turned over dozens of envelopes from EDD containing other people’s information, with addresses in San Jose, San Diego and elsewhere.
An EDD spokeswoman told City News Service last month the mailings were the result of fraud.