TRENTON –Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino announced that an Ocean County woman was sentenced to prison today for defrauding the state of $345,213 by filing false claims for unemployment benefits in the names of purported former employees of her defunct tax preparation business.
Erica Rivera, 35, of Beachwood, N.J., was sentenced today to seven years in state prison by Superior Court Judge Peter E. Warshaw in Mercer County. She pleaded guilty on Sept. 19 to an accusation charging her with second-degree theft by deception. As part of the plea agreement, she executed a consent judgment to pay $345,213 in restitution to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The state has recovered $31,000 to date which will be applied to that restitution.
Rivera was charged in an investigation by the Division of Criminal Justice Specialized Crimes Bureau. The investigation began with a referral from the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which uncovered the suspicious claims. The Philadelphia Police Department, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Labor-Office of Inspector General assisted in the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Christopher Keating prosecuted Rivera and handled the sentencing for the Division of Criminal Justice.
In pleading guilty, Rivera admitted that, from September 2012 to June 2015, she engaged in a scheme in which she filed false online applications for unemployment benefits and received benefit payments in the names of 24 purported former employees of her tax preparation business, Compassionate Financial Services (“CFS”). The false applications resulted in 27 unemployment insurance claims, through which Rivera received 521 benefit payments totaling $345,213. In submitting the false claims, Rivera used the personal identifying information of relatives and acquaintances, including former clients of CFS, who apparently did not know that their personal information was being used. Those individuals were either never employed by CFS or never filed unemployment claims in New Jersey. Rivera posed as the claimants in certifying online each week that they met the eligibility requirements to receive benefits. She also posed as certain claimants when the state labor department telephoned to verify information. Beneficiaries are issued debit cards and receive unemployment benefits through direct deposit to accounts associated with the cards. Rivera received debit cards at a drop box at a postal store which she used as the address for most of the claims. She was captured by surveillance cameras using a number of the debit cards to withdraw funds at ATM locations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
“Rivera was systematic in her scheme to steal unemployment benefits from the state, but she learned that the state is even more systematic in rooting out fraud,” said Attorney General Porrino. “We’ll continue to work with the Department of Labor to put swindlers like Rivera in prison and protect this vital safety net for New Jersey’s unemployed.”
“Unemployment insurance fraud hurts honest New Jersey workers who count on these benefits to keep them afloat financially if they lose their jobs,” said Director Elie Honig of the Division of Criminal Justice. “We’re putting con artists on notice that we will aggressively prosecute this type of fraud.”
“Our department takes the protection of public funds extremely seriously,” said Acting Commissioner Aaron R. Fichtner of the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. “We have implemented strong anti-fraud measures to prevent unemployment insurance fraud and will continue to work closely with state and federal authorities to aggressively identify, pursue and prosecute those who cheat the system.”
Since 2011, the Department of Labor has been cracking down on unemployment insurance fraud, saving the New Jersey Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund more than $750 million to date. Among the many anti-fraud practices and procedures adopted are software and program changes that enable the department to detect false claims by cross-checking data internally and with other databases to flag invalid information or suspicious patterns involving common elements among multiple claims, such as identical residences or Internet protocol (IP) addresses.