Phony IDs Were a Gold Mine, Feds Say

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A contracting foreman in California’s Central Valley not only gave undocumented workers false identities, he scooped up $1.8 million in illegal unemployment benefits with the phony IDs, federal prosecutors say.
     Raul Oropeza Lopez, 47, and his wife Ana Maria Oropeza, 41, both of Delano, were arrested this week and a 10-count indictment against them unsealed. They are accused of running a mail fraud scheme from Jan. 1, 2008 until Nov. 30, 2014.
     Delano, 30 miles north of Bakersfield, is in the heart of the Central Valley’s grape country.
     The U.S. attorney claims that through his job as a contracting foreman, Raul Oropeza obtained Social Security numbers, names and other information about U.S. citizens and legal residents who were eligible to work but were not working in the country at the time.
     In some cases, people willingly gave their information to Oropeza, while other people had no idea their identities had been stolen, according to the indictment.
     Oropeza gave the stolen identities to undocumented workers so they could work in the country as seasonal farm laborers, according to the indictment.
     When the workers were laid off at the end of the growing season, Oropeza and his wife filed fraudulent unemployment insurance claims under the assumed identities, and collected the unemployment benefits themselves, prosecutors say.
     The unemployment checks were sent to the numerous addresses the Oropezas had given to the California Employment Development Department, including post office boxes, private postal boxes and street addresses.
     The Oropezas opened and controlled bank accounts in the names of many of the assumed identities, deposited the checks into these accounts, and then periodically withdrew money, which they put into their own accounts, according to the indictment.
     “Bank records show a consistent pattern of spending by the defendants on a variety of expenses that significantly exceeded their income from their legitimate employment. These expenses included thousands of dollars spent each month on savings, investments, bills and other utilities, extensive home improvements, and various other lifestyle purchases. The defendants also spent thousands of dollars each month in credit card payments, increasing the total volume of purchases they made to sustain their fraudulently elevated lifestyle,” the indictment states.
     Over the course of nearly seven years, the Oropezas submitted more than 520 claims using the identities of more than 70 people, collecting unemployment benefits of more than $1.8 million, the U.S. attorney says.
     Sometimes they shared the money with the people who gave them their personal information, but generally did not give a dime to the farm laborers who actually did the work that led to the unemployment benefits, the indictment states.
     The Feb. 26 indictment accused them of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and nine counts of mail fraud.
     Both are out on bond.
     Their next court appearance will be before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Oberto on May 4.
     If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine on each count, and criminal forfeiture.

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