Zookeeper, Chauffeur Among 78 Phony IDs Used By Man In Benefits Scam
Sacramento Bee (CA)
Jan. 20—One claim filed with California's Employment Development Department was in the name of someone claiming to be a "children's zoo caretaker" in Sacramento who earned $124,000 until being laid off because of COVID-19.
Another was for an "aqua fitness instructor" in Sacramento who was making $105,000 annually until they lost their job after getting COVID.
Yet another was for a Los Angeles chauffeur who also had a background as a zoologist.
These are just three of the 78 phony unemployment claims federal officials say were filed by a New Jersey man who got $900,000 in fraudulent payments and attempted to fleece California out of up to $2.5 million.
On Thursday, a federal grand jury in Sacramento indicted the man, Eric Michael Jaklitsch, 40, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, on charges of wire fraud and aggravated identity theft, the latest charges in the ongoing scandal involving billions of dollars of losses from phony claims made to California's unemployment insurance system since the start of the pandemic.
"During the scheme, Jaklitsch collected personal identifying information of numerous individuals — including names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers — and used their identities to file fraudulent unemployment insurance claims," U.S. Attorney Phillip Talbert's office said in announcing the indictment. "The filings represented, among other things, that the claimants had recently lost employment or were unable to find employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic."
A criminal complaint in the case filed under seal in December gives further details on the alleged plot, saying Jaklitsch submitted phony driver's licenses and photos of himself wearing a curly wig to sneak through EDD's verification process, a practice court documents describe as "synthetic identity fraud."
"In at least 78 UI claims, Jaklitsch presents himself the same way, regardless of the ID theft victim's age or sex," an affidavit from U.S. Labor Department Special Agent Christina Wang says in describing how law enforcement agents tracked Jaklitsch's movements around New Jersey as he visited ATMs withdrawing cash using Bank of America debit cards issued in the names of identity theft victims.
"To date, the suspected dollar loss to the state of California is more than $900,000 with an attempted loss of more than $2.5 million," the affidavit says. "This estimate is based on the loss amount associated with the 78 fraudulent UI (claims) submitted to California EDD, of which approximately 68 were approved and funded."
The investigation began in December 2020 after a company called ID.me, which EDD uses to verify claims, identified Jaklitsch as having filed 78 claims, court papers say.
Agents interviewed the postal carrier who delivered mail to Jaklitsch's apartment address and found "that mail was delivered to that same address for multiple other people's names," the affidavit says, adding that Bank of America records showed at least 18 fraudulent EDD debit cards had been mailed to the apartment in the name of nine different people.
Jaklitsch was arrested in New Jersey last month and ordered held pending him being sent to California, according to court records in New Jersey.
California officials have said COVID-related unemployment insurance fraud cases may total as much as $20 billion, and past cases have involved state prison inmates, former EDD workers and fraudsters worldwide.
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