COVID benefits fraud scheme leads to felony sentences
(The Center Square) – A couple will spend years in Arizona prisons for stealing identities to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments there as well as in Colorado.
Daniel Lucero, age 34, and Makallyn Hunt, age 22, broke into hundreds of mailboxes In Arizona and Colorado during the COVID-19 pandemic, stealing names and information to apply for unemployment assistance. A joint investigation by the Glendale Police Department and the United States Office of Inspector General apprehended the couple and found thousands of stolen paperwork and dozens of fraudulently acquired prepaid debit cards.
"The sentencing of Lucero and Hunt underscores my office's commitment to protecting the interests of taxpayers and vulnerable communities," Attorney General Kris Mayes said. "Misusing the identities of elderly individuals to fraudulently collect benefits is unacceptable."
Lucero entered into a guilty plea on Feb. 24, admitting to one count of theft, a class 2 felony, and one count of Aggravated Taking the Identity of Another, a class 3 felony. He was sentenced to 7 years with the Arizona Department of Corrections, followed by a period of white-collar probation.
Hunt pleaded guilty to one count of theft and one count of Aggravated Taking the Identity of Another on Jan. 20, considered class 5 and 3 felonies. She was sentenced to 1.5 years with the Arizona Department of Corrections, followed by white-collar probation.
Both Hunt and Lucero were ordered to pay $46,741 to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and $181,746 to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, a total of $228,487.
"This sentencing illustrates that individuals who engage in unemployment insurance fraud will be held accountable. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate those who exploit the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program," said Quentin Heiden, Special Agent-in-Charge, Western Region, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General.
Hunt and Lucero's sentencing comes only a month after the Arizona Attorney General's office prosecuted a crime ring duplicating electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, resulting in $1.2 million in stolen benefits.
"Those engaging in fraud are on notice that my office will investigate and prosecute these crimes to the fullest extent of the law," Mayes said.
Further case details have yet to be made public.