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Tipline Investigation: Santa Maria man forced to prove his identity as crooks steal billions

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - We have an update on our series of Tipline investigations into the multi-billion dollar fraud in California’s unemployment system.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office spoke with NewsChannel Three about its investigation and we help another viewer get their desperately needed benefits.

“Bills were continuing to pile up and rent and car payments and everything else so, it’s been frustrating to say the least,” said Santa Maria resident Leonard Ochoa.

Ochoa filed for unemployment benefits in early March 2020 when the pandemic hit. He lost his job when the construction industry shut down. The Employment Development Department which oversees unemployment claims disqualified him claiming there were questions about his identity.

“I made multiple calls and multiple emails and I couldn’t get no assistance and getting through on the phone was impossible,” said Ochoa.

He immediately appealed, but didn’t go before a judge until September, 2020.

“It was immediately reversed by the judge and the normal procedure, they send the decision letter over to EDD to release those funds,” said Ochoa.

But that didn’t happen. Ochoa had to keep fighting. Months went by and he finally called the NewsChannel Three Tipline for help.

“I’d imagine you’ve been seeing our stories about how prisoners have been getting money, all these scam artists have been ripping off debit cards. You see that, what are you thinking?” asked C.J. Ward “Scott Peterson is spending my money,” replied Ochoa with a chuckle.

Scott Peterson you may recall is on death row for murdering his pregnant wife. State investigators say prisoners and jail inmates are among the crooks who’ve stolen at least $31-billion taxpayer dollars meant to help people like Ochoa pay the bills during the pandemic.

Santa Barbara County Supervising District Attorney Brian Cota says 141 inmates at the Santa Barbara County Jail received $1.2 million dollars in the scam.

"When it comes to our county jail we know the inmates did not apply for the EDD benefits so we know somebody on the outside did it. They don't have access to computers inside," said Cota.

Cota also said they requested documentation from EDD and others almost 7 months ago. However, it's a complex case and everyone from the federal government, to prosecutors in every California county are waiting for those same records.

"Other things like IP addresses. EDD has those so if someone filled out an application online they have an IP address that we can know where it came from. They provided us that information. EDD has actually been very helpful but they are overwhelmed, Bank of America is overwhelmed, so we have to be patient."

Bank of America processed all of the debit cards the state used to payout the unemployment benefits. The crooks created bogus EDD accounts to get those cards. As Leonard Ochoa fought to prove his identity the scammers were getting paid.

Ochoa didn't get his unemployment money until NewsChannel Three got involved. EDD eventually gave him $6,800 in back benefits one year after he filed.

"I really appreciate your help and assistance. People need someone like yourself on their side. So, we really appreciate you," said Ochoa.

Brian Cota said their investigation revealed that about $500,000 in fraudulent EDD debit cards went to one Santa Barbara home.

We contacted EDD officials for a comment and we have not received a response.

Business Matters / California / Crime / Economy / Money and Business / NewsChannel 3 Investigates / San Luis Obispo County / Santa Barbara - South County / Santa Maria - Lompoc - North County / Ventura County / Video / Your Money
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C.J. Ward

C.J. Ward is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and the station’s lead investigative reporter. To learn more about C.J., click here

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