$220K Unemployment Fraud Uncovered After Man Flashes Gun: Secret Service

NBC 7's Bridget Naso spoke to a fraud expert about the scam.

An application for a warrant to seize property subject to forfeiture that was filed in federal court last month offers an instructive look at how a pair of alleged identity thieves in San Diego operated. Because the suspects have not been charged, identifying details about them were not included in this report -- Ed.

When he was arrested on a beautiful fall morning in North Park last year, the suspect had more than $4,000 in cash in his wallet and was across the street from where he parked a BMW he paid more than $50,000 cash for earlier that month, according to court documents.

A U.S. Secret Service special agent filed the documents -- an application for a warrant to seize property subject to forfeiture -- in federal court last week.

Officers from the San Diego Police Department first became aware of the suspect that same morning after 911 received two calls about the driver of a BMW. The first caller said the man driving had cut her off, then pointed a handgun at her when she honked at him. She told the dispatcher she lost sight of the car in Mission Valley.

The second caller told 911 that a man parking a BMV less than an hour later had flashed a gun during an arguing with the 911 caller.

SDPD arrived soon after and spoke to the suspect, handcuffing him soon after, investigators said, adding that the man denied having a weapon and allowed them to search his car across the street after officers requested permission to do so.

Police said they found a backpack in the back seat. Inside, officers said, they found about $68,000 in cash and 11 Visa debit cards in the names of 10 different people that had been issued by California's Employment Development Department.

The cards are typically issued to the recipients of unemployment benefits.

Sophisticated hackers, identity thieves and overseas criminal rings stole over $11 billion in unemployment benefits from California last year, but the extent of the fraud might grow far larger: billions more in payments are under investigation.

NBC7's Consumer Bob shares tips to avoid being hacked by data breaches.

California Labor Secretary Julie Su told reporters in a conference call last week that of the $114 billion the state has paid in unemployment claims, about 10% — or $11.4 billion — were confirmed as fraudulent.

Officers in San Diego also found three Visa cards and seven other debit cards, according to the warrant application. Most of the cards were n issued in the same names as the EDD cards.

The gun the suspect is alleged to have displayed was not found by investigators, however.

During questioning, the man, who also had $4,400 in cash in his wallet allegedly told officers that his mother had given him the cash because of the pandemic and that he found the cards at a car wash. Investigators said he was later unable to recall the name of the car wash.

A sales receipt was also found that showed he bought the car for $52,500 in cash earlier in the month. A letter from a car dealership confirming his purchase and the price was sent to a home in East County.

Later in the investigation, according to court documents, an EDD official confirmed that 17 EDD Visa cards had been sent to the same East County address. The EDD investigator told the Secret Service that the state estimated that claims paid out associated with that address exceed $200,000, not including $21,000 paid to the suspect.

A San Diego man says a scammer used his information to collect unemployment checks -- but the thing is: He never lost his job, and now he says the unemployment office isn't helping, reports NBC 7's Alexis Rivas

Police arrested the man for grant theft that morning, according to court papers.

Investigators believe the suspect may have gotten some of the victims' personal information from a woman he had been involved with romantically who, when she worked at a local university, had to make copies of driver's licenses and passports as part of her job.

The woman told investigators with school police, according to the court documents, that she had dated the suspect but that they had broken up in December of last year. During her police interview, she allegedly confirmed her work at the college and that one of her tasks was making copies of identity documents.

The Secret Service special agent stated in the seizure application that he believed the pair had committed identity theft, mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, wire-fraud conspiracy and conspiracy, and said he believed that the state unemployment departments of California, Arizona and Idaho had all received fraudulent claims.

As part of the seizure application, the special agent asked the court for a warrant to search the suspect's cell phone to search for emails between the suspect and the woman. The agent also asked for warrants to seize the BMV, and the $72,400 allegedly in the suspect's wallet and a backpack found in the car.

According to seizure application, no federal or state charges have been filed yet against the suspect.

NBC 7 reached out to the U.S. Attorney's Office regarding this case. Officials declined to comment on the investigation.

It can be a challenge to protect against identity theft crimes. Experts say people should keep an eye on their mail for strange notices, credit reports, and reach out to the Identity Theft Resource Center for advice if necessary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report -- Ed.

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