Virginia woman used inmates’ names to help steal $700K in COVID unemployment, feds say

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Farren Ricketts started a company charging clients thousands of dollars to file falsified applications for unemployment benefits during the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal prosecutors.

She even hired a small staff when business picked up, the government said.

Now the 30-year-old from Virginia faces prison time. Ricketts waived her right to an indictment and pleaded guilty on Monday to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and identity theft, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia said in a news release.

She was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond. A public defender appointed to represent Ricketts declined to comment on her behalf.

“Defrauding the federal government of critical funds designed to assist those in need is unconscionable, particularly during a worldwide pandemic,” Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel P. Bubar said in the release. “It is also a federal crime with serious consequences.”

Unemployment insurance is set up to provide financial assistance to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. During the pandemic, the federal government expanded eligibility for those benefits to offset more job losses in the wake of nationwide shutdowns.

Ricketts is accused of filing more than 100 fraudulent applications for unemployment assistance on behalf of herself, her husband and numerous clients. She’s also accused of filing claims using the names of inmates, who are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Those individuals were not aware Rickett used their information, prosecutors said, and she kept the money for herself.

In total, Rickett is accused of defrauding the government of more than $669,000.

According to court filings, Rickett submitted the first two fraudulent applications for her husband and herself despite neither of them being unemployed. She received more than $18,000 in fraudulent benefits as a result.

Touting their success, Ricketts’ husband started bringing friends and acquaintances over so she could file fraudulent unemployment applications for them as well, the government said.

Ricketts initially charged a flat fee of $1,000 to file an unemployment application, the government said. She soon upped that fee to $2,000, followed by $3,000, before eventually taking a 32% cut of each client’s weekly unemployment benefits.

The pair later started their own business called Ricketts Advisory LLC.

Paperwork filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission shows the company was formed July 1st with a registered address in Jonesville, Virginia, where the Ricketts are from. Jonesville is in the southwest corner of the state, less than 10 miles from the Tennessee border.

Prosecutors said Ricketts owned 51% of the business while her husband owned 49%.

By August, the fraud was “more than Ricketts could handle by herself.” According to court filings, she hired at least six employees to help file weekly certifications to continue receiving unemployment assistance. Those employees were paid in cash or with prepaid debit cards containing unemployment benefits.

During the same time frame, prosecutors said someone gave Ricketts a list of people serving lengthy sentences in Virginia and Tennessee who wouldn’t know if she filed claims on their behalf.

Using that stolen personal information, Ricketts is accused of filing “numerous fraudulent claims” on behalf of inmates who were unaware of the scheme.

She will be sentenced on Oct. 29, prosecutors said.

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