Unemployment money was a coronavirus lifeline. Scammers grabbed $900K in NC cases.

Federal authorities in Charlotte said Thursday they had seized $80,000 held in bank accounts that

Federal authorities in Charlotte said Thursday they had seized $80,000 held in bank accounts that they say scammers used to steal unemployment benefits meant to help people survive the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the second such case U.S. Attorney Andrew Murray’s office announced this week. More than $48,000 was seized in that case, authorities said Tuesday.

Court documents say unknown scammers used personal information stolen from identity theft victims in North Carolina’s Western District to apply online for state and federal unemployment benefits, Murray and Reginald DeMatteis, special agent in charge of the Secret Service in Charlotte, said in Thursday’s announcement.

The fraudsters then directed bank account holders to make financial transactions with the money or transfer it to other bank accounts, often overseas. Many of the account holders, referred to in court documents as “money mules,” were involved in online romances with the scammers and didn’t know they were being exploited.

A seizure warrant application, unsealed in federal court Thursday, says an unidentified group of criminals victimized western North Carolina account holders between March and June.

In mid-May, a federal agent’s affidavit says, First Citizens Bank alerted law enforcement agencies that about 100 customers had received unemployment benefit deposits — but the recipients’ names didn’t match those of the customers. The deposits totaled about $900,000, the bank said.

First Citizens reversed most of the deposits but was unable to do so for some of the accounts, the affidavit says. About $105,000 in irreversible deposits remained in the accounts by mid-June, it said.

Suspected coronavirus fraud may be reported to the National Center for Disaster Fraud hotline at 866-720-5721 or online at Justice.gov/DisasterComplaintForm.

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