By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES, Dec 16 (Reuters) - A Southern California woman who prosecutors say obtained more than $500,000 in COVID-19 benefits using stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a federal criminal charge.
Cara Marie Kirk-Connell, 32, admitted in a plea agreement to purchasing stolen identities through the "dark web" and watching YouTube videos on how to file fraudulent unemployment claims, prosecutors said.
Kirk-Connell pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to a single count of use of an unauthorized access device.
The Riverside County woman faces a maximum of to 10 years in federal prison when she is sentenced in April, although federal sentencing guidelines typically call for less time behind bars.
As part of her plea deal with prosecutors, Kirk-Connell admitted procuring debit cards worth more than $500,000 from the California Employment Development Department using stolen personal information.
California EDD records showed that the cards and identities were used to obtain approximately $534,149 in COVID-19-related unemployment funds, of which nearly $270,000 had already been spent, according to an affidavit filed as part of the investigation.
The benefits are intended for distribution under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March.
That legislation expanded unemployment benefits to cover business owners, self-employed workers and independent contractors, who lost jobs or income during the coronavirus pandemic.
California has been one of the hardest-hit U.S. states during the latest COVID-19 surge, which has killed more than 300,000 people nationwide since infections began spreading in March of this year.
Lockdowns and business closures imposed by state and local leaders in response to the pandemic have put millions of Americans out of work and left the U.S. economy reeling. (Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Editing by Nick Zieminski)
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