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She Used To Work For The EDD, Then She Defrauded The Agency Out Of More Than $4 Million

3:55 PM PST on February 11, 2022

Employment Development Department of CA, via ABC 7

The scheme was relatively simple. COVID shut the country down and the government was giving away trillions of dollars in relief to make up for it. Using her previous experience as a tax preparer and employee for the Employment Development Department (EDD) of California, SoCal resident Gabriela Llerenas (a.k.a Maria G. Sandoval) and others saw an opportunity to walk away with millions.

Over the course of more than a year, Llerenas took advantage of the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the government program that provided financial relief for business owners, self employed workers and freelancers during the pandemic.

Llerenas worked persistently, submitting nearly two dozen applications in a single day sometimes but she wasn’t always diligent. The majority of the nearly 200 applications that she submitted did not contain a driver's license number or other required fields of information, raising red flags. Llerenas also had a tendency to use similar occupations on requests, such as “baker” or “cake decorator.” And at times she used the names, social security numbers and other identifying information that she obtained through her work as a tax preparer.

In total, she filed nearly 200 false claims for unemployment insurance, resulting in more than $4 million in relief funds being disbursed. This whole scheme was made easier in part because the government didn’t require individuals applying for relief to submit any supporting documents with their initial application. As a result, officials estimate that criminals in California were able to obtain billions of dollars in relief.

At one point during the scheme, Llerenas leaned on her experience working at the EDD and attempted to shakedown someone by posing as an employee. Llerenas sought to profit by demanding payment in exchange for filing an application and dispersing the funds, according to prosecutors and a plea agreement.

This went on until at least October 2020. About a year later, Llerenas was charged with felony mail fraud. Last Friday, she was sentenced to serve more than five years in prison.

It’s likely Llerenas didn’t operate on her own though. Dozens of unemployment debit cards were sent to Llerenas’ husband and family members, totalling more than half a million in benefits. To top it off, she filed fraudulent applications on the behalf of at least seven individuals.

And this wasn’t Llerenas’ first rodeo, the whole reason why she walked away from her position at the EDD in the first place was because she admitted to authorizing fraudulent payments for disability benefits administered by EDD. She ended up serving 37 months for that scheme.

Pandemic fraud was common in California and other states. The California government estimates that at least $20 billion was handed over to alleged criminals between the start of the pandemic and the fall of last year. Fraud in the state was so widespreads that nearly $1 billion was approved for prisoners, including more than a dozen death row inmates.

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