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Lawrence woman gets three years for fraudulent pandemic unemployment claims; Rhode Island man arrested for same thing

A Lawrence woman who used a notebook full of people's addresses and other personal information to collect more than $360,000 in fraudulent Massachusetts pandemic unemployment claims was sentenced to three years in federal prison yesterday, the US Attorney's office reports.

Separately, a Rhode Island man was arrested yesterday on charges he obtained more than $450,000 in Massachusetts unemployment meant for pandemic victims, the US Attorneys office also reports.

Raquel Pena, 40, of Lawrence, was sentenced in US District Court in Boston after pleading guilty to wire fraud and aggravated identity theft on July 15.

According to an affidavit by an FBI agent on her case, Pena used other people's information to open at least 11 bogus accounts with the state Department of Unemployment Assistance, which then paid out the money to the accounts for pandemic-related unemployment. A number of the accounts were in the names of people in Puerto Rico, who told investigators they had never applied for Massachusetts unemployment and didn't know Pena.

Pena was undone in part by WhatsApp text and voice messages that some of the people allegedly working with her on the scheme recorded and then handed over to the FBI. Among the people she allegedly coordinated the scheme with: Her former boyfriend, her daughter's boyfriend and a former roommate. The accomplices set up several of the state unemployment accounts, had the state money transferred to their bank accounts and then would hand over cash to Pena, less some money as a "gift," according to the affidavit.

Pena would get on the line with accomplices when they applied for their state accounts - so that they could promptly give her the verification codes the state sent out to open the accounts, which she would then enter.

The next day, May 9, 2020, Witness 2 told Pena via WhatsApp, "the money came in" and "I'll give you the money later." Pena responded, "that's great, sweetie" and instructed Witness 2 to "take it all out and stash it" and "don't leave it in the bank."

The affidavit recounts a WhatsApp exchange between Pena and somebody who didn't want to participate - but who agreed to find people who might want to help out:

I have here, like 40 or 50 numbers. You hear? If [a person who cooperated with the feds] is looking for accounts, I don't have to look for accounts outside. [The cooperating witness] has made a ton of money. Here, everyone is making - Here, no one has a need.

According to the US Attorney's office, Dquintz Alexander, 34, of Cranston, RI, cooked up an unemployment fraud scheme with his employer, Norman Higgs of Dudley, just with fewer co-conspirators. Higgs pleaded guilty on Sept. 17 and who is now awaiting sentencing.

According to Alexander's indictment, the two used names, social-security numbers and bank-account information to open 85 fake accounts with DUA and then accept payments - after switching the bank accounts to ones opened by Higgs.

Higgs ran a telecommunications firm, so the two used more sophisticated techniques than Pena to avoid suspicion, including extensive use of virtual private networks, VoIP phone numbers and identity-shielding e-mail services, such as ProtonMail, according to the US Attorney's office. Higgs served as a middleman - the accounts would funnel money to him, and he would transfer the money to Alexander, less a payment for his services.

According to the indictment, they used the money to pay off their credit-card bills and to open up online digital-currency and brokerage accounts for investing.

Affidavit in Pena case (5.6M PDF).
Alexander indictment (865k PDF).

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