Scranton man charged with COVID-relief fraud, ID theft

Sep. 27—A Scranton man has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges he used stolen identities to apply for multiple COVID-19 pandemic relief loans worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Robert Brownstein, 51, was charged in a criminal information with wire fraud conspiracy and aggravated identity theft, U.S. Attorney Gerard Karam announced.

According to the information, which was filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Brownstein and unnamed co-conspirators used stolen identities to apply for pandemic relief loans issued under the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program.

The stolen identities were also used to create forged identification documents and open bank accounts, apply for lines of credit and obtain retail merchandise in the names of the victims, the information said.

Funded by the March 2020 CARES Act, the PPP was designed to help small businesses facing financial difficulties during the pandemic, Karam's office said. PPP funds were offered as forgivable loans, provided that certain criteria were met, including use of the money for employee payroll, mortgage interest, lease and utility expenses.

The information said Brownstein and his co-conspirators made PPP loan applications on behalf of their victims to two different lenders in April 2021.

In each case, the application requested a PPP loan of $20,833 and falsely represented that the applicant operated a sole proprietorship with gross income of $148,905 in 2020, the information said.

The PPP loan proceeds were later deposited into bank accounts under the control of Brownstein and his co-conspirators, the information said.

Brownstein faces up to 30 years in prison on the wire fraud conspiracy charge, plus a mandatory two-year sentence on the aggravated identity theft count, along with $1.25 million in fines and five years of supervised release.

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