A state task force investigating suspicious jobless claims has now referred 17 cases for criminal prosecution, the Colorado Attorney General’s Office said Friday.
The AG’s office, which is part of the Colorado Unemployment Fraud Task Force, said the total loss in unemployment fraud “exceeds $300,000.”
“These are complex cases that take time to develop, and now several cases have been referred to various DAs for prosecution,” Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a news release. “There’s more to come and we’ll continue to work diligently to hold those accountable who seek to cheat the state and engage in identity theft.”
The AG’s office highlighted a handful of cases but declined to share details on others since there are still active investigations going on. The public cases include:
- Anthony Zaghab, a Centennial resident, who was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in December for falsifying applications for COVID-related relief funds and obtaining $41,511 in pandemic unemployment benefits from Colorado, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
- Daniel Stonebarger pleaded guilty to wire fraud and is expected to be ordered to pay $28,142 in restitution to CDLE for unemployment benefits he wasn’t entitled to. His sentencing is set for April 22 in U.S. District Court, according to the AG’s office.
- District Attorney Josh Vogel in Prowers County District Court filed separate complaints against Brian Lee Lucero and Judy Faith Abdo, for using deception to collect between $20,000 and $100,000 in unemployment benefits. Lucero is accused of impersonating another individual to file for unemployment. Abdo is alleged to have used an altered tax form to qualify for a larger weekly benefits payment. A third individual in the region also faces charges with a warrant issued for their arrest.
- James William Emerick faces a two-count complaint of theft and cybercrime in a case filed in Jefferson County District Court by DA Alexis King of the First Judicial District.
The task force was created last March after the incessant attacks on the state’s unemployment system by local and international fraudsters. Of the 17 cases, 14 were sent to district attorneys statewide, one to the Attorney General’s Office and two to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.
The 17 cases are likely just a fraction of what’s under investigation but additional case details are not yet available, said Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for the AG’s office.
“We expect more case referrals in the near future,” Pacheco added.
The state’s labor department has been fighting fraud since the pandemic began. While some states like California reported paying $20 billion in unemployment benefits in fraudulent claims, Colorado officials say it’s been much less here because they implemented anti-fraud triggers that put payments on hold until they are investigated.
On Friday, officials at the state’s labor department said its latest data shows that 68,602 unique claims have been confirmed fraudulent. Of those, $33.7 million was paid to accounts deemed fraudulent.
Another $671 million in possible payments were stopped thanks to the labor department’s anti-fraud tools. And another $44.3 million in payments were recovered from banking institutions, said Phil Spesshardt, director of the Division of Unemployment Insurance.
That’s up from the $30 million CDLE confirmed as fraud in December, along with $600 million put on hold due to suspected fraud and $40 million recovered from banks.
After pandemic benefits ended in September, suspicious claims dropped to about 20% of incoming claims, though that changed after the Marshall fire in Boulder County. Fire victims were eligible for disaster unemployment assistance and that brought on a new wave of fraudulent filings.
“We are currently finding that 90% of all DUA claims filed are fraudulent,” Spesshardt said in an email. “These include claims with fictitious tax documentation uploaded to the system in an attempt to receive those benefits.”