|TRENTON –Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced that an Ocean County, N.J., woman pleaded guilty today to defrauding the state of $345,213 by filing false claims for unemployment benefits in the names of purported former employees of her defunct tax preparation business.
Erica Rivera, 35, of Beachwood, N.J., pleaded guilty today before Superior Court Judge Peter E. Warshaw in Mercer County to an accusation charging her with second-degree theft by deception. Under the plea agreement, the state will recommend that Rivera be sentenced to seven years in state prison. She must execute a consent judgment to pay $345,213 in restitution to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Rivera is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 2.
Rivera was charged in an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau. The investigation began with a referral from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which uncovered the suspicious claims. The Philadelphia Police Department, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Labor-Office of Inspector General assisted in the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Christopher Keating took the guilty plea for the Division of Criminal Justice.
In pleading guilty, Rivera admitted that, from September 2012 to June 2015, she engaged in a scheme in which she filed false online applications for unemployment benefits and received benefit payments in the names of 24 purported former employees of her tax preparation business, Compassionate Financial Services (“CFS”). The false applications resulted in 27 unemployment insurance claims, through which Rivera received 521 benefit payments totaling $345,213. In submitting the false claims, Rivera used the personal identifying information of relatives and acquaintances, including former clients of CFS, who apparently did not know that their personal information was being used. Those individuals were either never employed by CFS or never filed unemployment claims in New Jersey. Rivera posed as the claimants in certifying online each week that they met the eligibility requirements to receive benefits. She also posed as certain claimants when the state labor department telephoned to verify information. Beneficiaries are issued debit cards and receive unemployment benefits through direct deposit to accounts associated with the cards. Rivera received debit cards at a drop box at a postal store which she used as the address for most of the claims. She was captured by surveillance cameras using a number of the debit cards to withdraw funds at ATM locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
“Rivera was systematic in her scheme to steal unemployment benefits from the state, but she learned that the state is even more systematic in rooting out fraud,” said Attorney General Porrino. “We’ll continue to work with the Department of Labor to put swindlers like Rivera in prison and protect this vital safety net for New Jersey’s workers.”
“Unemployment insurance fraud hurts honest New Jersey workers who count on these benefits to keep them afloat financially if they lose their jobs,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We’re putting con artists on notice that we will aggressively prosecute this type of fraud.”
“My department shows zero tolerance to fraudsters looking to rob the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund,” said New Jersey Labor Commissioner Hal Wirths. “We have developed strong anti-fraud measures to prevent taxpayer dollars from reaching the hands of swindlers and we continue to work closely with the state Attorney General’s Office to aggressively identify, pursue and prosecute those who cheat the system.”
Since 2011, the Department of Labor has been cracking down on unemployment insurance fraud, saving the New Jersey Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund approximately $750 million to date. Among the many anti-fraud practices and procedures adopted are software and program changes that enable the department to detect false claims by cross-checking data internally and with other databases to flag invalid information or suspicious patterns involving common elements among multiple claims, such as identical residences or Internet protocol (IP) addresses.
The investigation was conducted for the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau by Detective Glenn Stanton, former Detective Lynn Fitzgerald, Detective Christine Sullivan and former Deputy Attorney General John Paone, under the supervision of Deputy Bureau Chief Andrew B. Johns, Deputy Bureau Chief Jacqueline Smith and Bureau Chief Jill Mayer.
Attorney General Porrino thanked the Department of Labor and Workforce Development for its referral and valuable assistance. The investigation was conducted for the Department of Labor by Supervising Investigator Michael Kulyk and Investigator Luke Schaffer of the Office of Benefit Payment Control, under the direction of Charles J. Walkowiak, Director of Fraud Prevention and Risk Management.
Attorney General Porrino also thanked Lt. Dennis Rosenbaum and Detective Thomas Altimari of the Philadelphia Police Department, Supervising Special Agent Jim Elo of the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, and the U.S. Department of Labor-Office of Inspector General for their valuable assistance.