CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Officials have seized nearly $50,000 tied to a coronavirus unemployment scheme in North Carolina.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office seized $48,742.50 in funds held at bank accounts allegedly used to perpetuate COVID-19 unemployment fraud. The federal asset forfeiture seizure warrants executed by the United States Secret Service were unsealed by the court Tuesday.
According to allegations in an affidavit, to carry out the scheme, the fraudsters used victims’ stolen identities to apply for unemployment benefits online.
The scammers then used the bank accounts of yet another set of unsuspecting individuals as “money mule” accounts, to receive and transfer the stolen benefits.
Officials say “money mule accounts” are bank accounts used to move fraudulently-obtained funds. Often, the victims, typically acting at the direction of the fraudsters, receive fraud proceeds and conduct financial transactions with those proceeds, or transfer the money from the money mule account to other bank accounts, often located overseas.
In many instances, the account holders are not aware they are being exploited to carry out financial fraud.
As alleged in the federal affidavit, in some instances in this case, the individuals who opened the money mule accounts believed they were in online romantic relationships with the fraudsters.
The funds identified for seizure in this case were deposited as a result of fraud on coronavirus-related unemployment benefit programs, into many money mule accounts, including accounts purportedly opened by individuals in the Western District of North Carolina.
“I thank the U.S. Secret Service for acting quickly to stop this fraud. My office will continue to with work federal, state, and local law enforcement and stakeholder banks, to make sure domestic or foreign criminals do not profit from pillaging important COVID-19 relief programs,” U.S. Attorney Murray said.
U.S. Attorney Murray also noted that the public plays an important role in stopping COVID-19 fraud and urged everyone to remain alert about possible coronavirus scams.
“If you are engaged in an online-only relationship and your paramour asks you to open a new bank account, or use your existing account to transfer funds, think twice. A fraudster posing as a romantic online partner could be using you and your accounts as a repository to launder stolen money. Don’t let a scammer turn you into a money mule. Be extra vigilant about online scams, and if the circumstances are suspicious get in touch with law enforcement right away,” Murray said.
The U.S. Secret Service is in charge of the investigation, which is ongoing. Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Bain-Creed, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, is handling the federal civil court proceedings.
If you think you are a victim of a scam or attempted fraud involving COVID-19, you can report the fraud by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form. Members of the public in the Western District of North Carolina are also encouraged to call 704-344-6222 to reach their local Coronavirus Fraud Coordinator.