Former Social Security Employee Pleads Guilty To Pandemic Fraud Scheme
From the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Middle District of Pennsylvania:
SCRANTON - The United States Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania announced that Takiyah Gordon Austin, age 47, formerly of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty yesterday before U.S. District Court Judge Malachy E. Mannion, for a scheme to fraudulently obtain unemployment benefits related to COVID-19 emergency relief funds
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program was created by the March 27, 2020 CARES Act, as part of the United States government’s efforts to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public’s health and economic well-being. The PUA program was designed to provide unemployment benefits to individuals not eligible for regular unemployment compensation or extended unemployment benefits.
According to U.S. Attorney Gerard M. Karam, Austin pleaded guilty to one count wire fraud and one count of aggravated identify theft. From in or about May 2020 to in or about May 2021, Austin, a claims specialist with the Social Security Administration, filed PUA claims for ineligible recipients in exchange for payment from the individuals. Additionally, Austin filed claims after accessing SSA databases to obtain the personal identifying information from unsuspecting individuals and then diverted the unemployment funds to addresses she controlled in order to use the funds for her own personal expenses. Through the scheme, Austin defrauded the government of over $288,000.
“Former Social Security Administration (SSA) employee Gordon Austin abused her position by accessing Agency records for unofficial and illegal purposes. In her scheme, she used the stolen PII of innocent and unsuspecting persons to defraud federal benefits programs of over $288,000. Her criminal actions undermine the integrity of Social Security employees and programs,” said Michael McGill, Special Agent in Charge, Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General, Philadelphia Field Division. “My office will continue to work aggressively to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. I thank the U.S. Department of Labor for their assistance in this investigation, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison V. Martin and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Curran for their work in prosecuting this case.”
“Takiyah Gordon Austin engaged in a scheme to abuse her position as a claims specialist for the Social Security Administration in order to obtain the personally identifiable information of unsuspecting individuals. Austin then utilized that information to file for and receive fraudulent Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims and benefit payments. As part of the scheme, Austin also filed PUA claims for ineligible individuals in exchange for payment from the individuals. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General remains committed to working with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry and our law enforcement partners to safeguard the integrity of unemployment compensation benefit programs,” said Syreeta Scott, Special Agent-in-Charge, Mid-Atlantic Region, U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General.
The case was investigated by the Social Security Administration, Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Labor, Office of the Inspector General, and the United States Postal Inspection Service. Special Assistant United States Attorney Megan Curran and Assistant United States Attorney Alisan V. Martin are prosecuting the case.
The maximum penalty under federal law for wire fraud is 20 years’ imprisonment. Aggravated identity theft carries a mandatory two-year sentence consecutive to sentences imposed for other offenses. A sentence following a finding of guilt is imposed by the Judge after consideration of the applicable federal sentencing statutes and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud. The Task Force bolsters efforts to investigate and prosecute the most culpable domestic and international criminal actors and assists agencies tasked with administering relief programs to prevent fraud by, among other methods, augmenting and incorporating existing coordination mechanisms, identifying resources and techniques to uncover fraudulent actors and their schemes, and sharing and harnessing information and insights gained from prior enforcement efforts. For more information on the Department’s response to the pandemic, please visit https://www.justice.gov/coronavirus.
Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.