By Lukas I. Alpert
It was checkout time for this COVID-19 relief fraud.
A pandemic unemployment-benefit scam came unwound when a pair of alleged fraudsters left behind hundreds of letters containing payments to people whose identities had been stolen after checking out of a hotel room, prosecutors said.
Staffers at the hotel in Yonkers, N.Y. grew suspicious when they found bundles of mail from the New York Department of Labor containing debit cards in a hotel room after the couple left, according to court documents.
Prosecutors say Yohauris Rodriguez Hernandez, 40, was arrested at an immigration detention facility in Goshen, N.Y. on Wednesday and charged with stealing the identities of 100 people — many of whom lived in one three-block stretch in Queens — and using them to file for $1.9 million in fraudulent unemployment benefits.
Hernandez’s attorney declined to comment. Her co-conspirator was not identified in court documents and it was unclear if he was facing charges.
The scam came to the attention of authorities through a bumbling series of events in the unnamed Yonkers hotel in December 2020, after the pair apparently forgot to take a huge cache of incriminating evidence with them when they left the room.
The pair had tried to extend their stay an extra night, but were told the room they were in had been booked so they would have to switch rooms, court papers said. After the new guests reported finding the abandoned mail, a woman called the desk on behalf of the man and woman, saying they didn’t speak any English but wanted to get some things they had left behind in their original room, the document said. The clerk said they would have to wait until morning.
The woman called back again around midnight, insisting that they be allowed to collect their belongings, which prompted the clerk to call 911. When officers arrived, they spotted the couple trying to leave the hotel, prosecutors said.
Officers stopped them and said they would be detained until the matter could be sorted out. While they were waiting, officers said they saw the man trying to erase all the data off his phone. A subsequent search revealed photos of lists of names of people whose identities had been stolen, and numerous incriminating messages detailing the scheme.
Officers also found a notebook among the couple’s possessions that included lists of names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth for people whose identities had been stolen, prosecutors said.
Authorities later determined that the couple had over the course of nearly a year used the identities to apply for $1.9 million in unemployment benefits and had received $500,000 in payments.
Following her arrest, authorities running Hernandez’s fingerprints determined that she had previously been convicted in 2015 under a different identity in a scheme to use stolen Social Security numbers from Puerto Rico to file for false tax refunds. She was sentenced to three years in prison in that case.
Upon her release in 2017, she had been deported to her native Dominican Republic, but had later re-entered the country illegally. She is currently serving a 15-month sentence for illegal entry.