A Menifee woman was sentenced Friday to 37 months in federal prison for fraudulently obtaining more than $500,000 in COVID-19-related unemployment benefits, an example of what the Department of Justice described as an “unprecedented explosion” of such crimes.

Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 33, pleaded guilty in December 2020 to a single-count of using an unauthorized access device.

According to the Department of Justice, from May to October 2020, Kirk-Connell used personal information that she knew had been stolen and accessed via the darknet– such as dates of birth and Social Security numbers — to file fraudulent unemployment claims with the California Employment Development Department.

Federal prosecutors said Kirk-Connell watched YouTube instructional videos on how to commit unemployment insurance fraud with the stolen information and identities.

When Murietta police arrested Kirk-Connell in September 2020 during a traffic stop, she possessed eight EDD debit cards in other people’s names and the day before her arrest, she used fraudulently obtained EDD debit cards to withdraw more than $1,000 in cash, according to the DOJ.

When federal law enforcement arrested Kirk-Connell the following month, she had in her purse four EDD debit cards in victims’ names, four additional debit cards in victims’ names in her trunk, and about $10,000 in cash, federal prosecutors said.

According to the DOJ, there has been an “unprecedented explosion” in unemployment insurance fraud over the past year, during which time the federal government has provided enhanced unemployment benefits to those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The agency said about 150 people have been charged with crimes related to unemployment insurance fraud across the country in the last year, a dozen of which have been charged by prosecutors in the Central District of California.

“During the COVID pandemic over the past year, criminals have robbed the state of California of billions (of dollars) by engaging in identity theft to fraudulently obtain unemployment benefits from EDD,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum. “(Kirk-Connell) was part of that scourge.”

In an unrelated but similar case, another Riverside County woman was making her first court appearance Friday afternoon for filing fraudulent pandemic-related unemployment insurance claims.

Sequoia Edwards, 35, of Moreno Valley, was arrested Friday morning after being charged with filing at least 27 fraudulent unemployment insurance claims over two months last summer, at least six of which used information belonging to California prison inmates that she allegedly received from her incarcerated cousin, according to the Department of Justice.

Federal prosecutors allege she received at least $455,000 in ill-gotten unemployment benefits.

Earlier in the week, two other Inland Empire women were also arrested for the same crimes.

Mireya Ramos, 42, of Colton, was arrested Thursday for allegedly filing at least 37 fraudulent unemployment insurance claims. Federal prosecutors said most of the claims submitted in the names of inmates in the state prison system and many of them falsely stated the applicants were barbers who could not work due to the pandemic.

As a result of her fraudulent claims, the EDD issued at least $353,532 in unemployment benefits from June 2020 through January 2021, according to federal prosecutors.

Paris Thomas, 33, of San Bernardino was arrested Wednesday for allegedly filing approximately 49 fraudulent unemployment insurance applications, at least 15 of which were filed in the names of people incarcerated in state prisons, a federal prison and county jails, according to the DOJ.

The 49 fraudulent claims caused EDD to disburse more than $440,000 in unemployment benefits from June 2020 to December 2020, according to the affidavit in support of Thomas’ criminal complaint.

Those three women were charged in separate criminal complaints, and each faces counts of fraud in connection with emergency benefits, which carries a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years in federal prison, and wire fraud, which carries a maximum possible penalty of 20 years in prison.

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