On a 104-degree day in Las Vegas, Kenneth Greenland and Brittany Griesel were cruising down Sahara Boulevard in a rented Maserati when law enforcement pulled them over and found nine unemployment insurance debit cards worth more than $200,000, federal prosecutors alleged in a lawsuit announced Thursday.
Greenland and Griesel are facing three identity theft and fraud-related felony charges for using debit cards issued to others by California’s Employment Development Department. The two are among 10 individuals charged for offenses stemming from attempts to defraud unemployment systems in Arizona, California and Nevada. It was not immediately known if they had an attorney who could speak on their behalf.
U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada Nicholas Trutanich said the charges reflected his office’s efforts to “turn up the heat” and send a clear message to prospective fraudsters: “Stop trying to exploit the system and your greed is harming Nevadans. Our office will be prioritizing unemployment fraud going forward because prompt payments or benefits can make a big difference to Nevadans who need help.”
The charges range from identity theft to mail fraud and allege defendants collectively took more $1.2 million in unemployment benefits stored on more than 50 prepaid debit cards. They reflect the unprecedented strain that the coronavirus pandemic has placed unemployment insurance systems, which remain plagued by fraud attempts, technological glitches and delayed benefit payouts to those in need.
Labor Department estimates suggest more than $26 billion in unemployment funds has been lost to fraud throughout the United States. Nevada officials have estimated their system is riddled with between 100,000 to 200,000 claims and have struggled to balance the need to take time and vet claims with the need to provide funds to laid-off workers.
In one of the complaints, a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier is charged with obstruction of mail and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Jasmine-Royshell Kanisha Black is accused of helping Vincent Okoye find addresses on her postal route where he could send unemployment claims in other individuals’ names.
“They barely check their mailbox,” Black wrote in a Whatsapp message to Okoye included in the complaint. “The lady don’t check her box it’s a vacation home her parents got.”
Okoye was charged with identity theft and fraud in August.
Damian Sheets, Black’s attorney, emphasized that none of the charges allege Black propagated the theft and implored the public to keep an open mind as the case progresses.
Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.