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Vista man receives nearly 5-year prison sentence for pandemic relief benefit fraud

SAN DIEGO — A Vista man, who submitted false applications for unemployment benefits to California’s Employment Development Department (EDD), was sentenced in federal court to 57 months in custody, Sept. 19, following an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

As early as July and August 2020, Darris Cotton submitted at least 16 fraudulent applications for unemployment using other people’s names, dates of birth, and social security numbers.

Cotton used a relative’s address to submit the fraudulent applications. Once Cotton received the debit cards in the mail from EDD, he used the debit cards to purchase postal money orders and to purchase luxury items, such as Gucci backpacks. Cotton admitted that his criminal conduct caused a loss of $312,640 and that he submitted additional fraudulent applications for benefits in other states, including Arizona, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Special agents seized $112,539 in currency and money orders from Cotton during the investigation and he agreed to forfeit that money as proceeds of his fraud.

“Homeland Security Investigations is committed to investigating all criminal organizations and individuals who commit financial fraud and seek to exploit and profit from government programs that were created to benefit the American people,” said Chad Plantz, special agent in charge of HSI San Diego. “This sentencing affirms HSI’s and the government’s commitment to bringing these individuals to justice.”

“This defendant exploited an unemployment insurance program that was intended to be a safety net for workers who suffered financial hardship during a global pandemic,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Crimes like this took money away from those who truly needed it.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team and the investigating agencies for their excellent work on this case.

“This sentencing sends a strong message that CARES Act fraud will be punished to the fullest extent by federal law enforcement,” said Jason Reynolds, special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service San Diego Field Office. “This has been the culmination of hard work by numerous law enforcement agencies in the San Diego area working together, and we are committed to continuing our efforts and pursuing justice, putting an end to more fraudsters and criminal networks.”

The United States Department of Labor funds unemployment benefits, but the administration of the benefits is overseen by EDD. To qualify for benefits, an individual must apply with their name, date of birth, social security number, and other personal information. If the information is approved, EDD sends a debit card to the address provided in the application via U.S. Mail.

In March 2020, the United States Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which included an economic relief package of more than $2 trillion designed to help the American people during the public health and economic crises that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act expanded the population of persons eligible for benefits, the time period during which persons are eligible for benefits, and/or the amount of benefits.

HSI the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 6,800 special agents assigned to 225 cities throughout the United States, and 86 overseas locations in 55 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

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