Pee Dee couple plead guilty to multi-state COVID relief scam

A husband and wife from the Pee Dee have pleaded guilty to stealing almost half a million dollars in COVID-19 relief money through an elaborate identity fraud scheme, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina announced Thursday.

Mohammad Ribhi Farraj and Nariman Mahmoud Masoud, from Florence, pleaded guilty in South Carolina federal court, along with family members Marvet Masoud and Susan Masoud.

Using search warrants and confidential informants, the FBI found that the four used stolen identities to electronically submit false unemployment insurance claims to state agencies in South Carolina, New York and Florida, according to court records.

The four defendants all pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud related to unemployment insurance benefits, according to documents filed in federal court on Nov. 29.

The charge carries the possibility of 20 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

As part of the scheme, Farraj, 43, and his wife, Masoud, 35, procured personal identifying information, created fraudulent unemployment insurance applications and recruited others, according to a statement released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Marvet Masoud, 34, and Susan Masoud, 31, helped create fraudulent benefits applications and moved stolen funds out of bank accounts that were created using the stolen identities, according to officials.

“These Defendants callously took advantage of an unprecedented and nationwide pandemic-borne employment crisis,” said U.S. Attorney Adair F. Boroughs. “They stole money specifically intended for out-of-work Americans trying to make ends meet, and they used that money to enrich themselves.”

An indictment, filed in South Carolina federal court, laid out 17 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy and identity theft.

The defendants began their scheme in January 2020, according to the indictment. But prosecutors say that it escalated as unemployment benefits programs expanded during the pandemic.

As well as making false applications and receiving funds from South Carolina’s unemployment insurance program, the defendents also stole from programs in Florida, where Marvet was located, and New York, where Susan lived. The four also pleaded guilty to stealing from federal COVID relief programs.

The fraud exceeded $444,753, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The stolen funds were deposited into bank accounts and loaded onto prepaid debit cards opened under the names of identity theft victims, according to the indictment. From there, the conspirators withdrew cash from ATMs, transferred money into their own bank accounts and used it to buy cryptocurrency, according to the US Attorney’s Office.

“These individuals decided to fraudulently and selfishly take advantage of much needed unemployment benefits to line their pockets,” said FBI Columbia Special Agent in Charge, Susan Ferensic.

United States District Judge Joseph Dawson III will sentence the defendants after reviewing sentencing reports prepared by the U.S. Probation Office, according to the statement.

The prosecution of a fifth defendant, Wafah Masoud, 33, of Wylie, Texas, is currently on pause. She was given an opportunity to “complete a pretrial diversion program given her limited role in the scheme,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Derek A. Shoemake, who served as the office’s coronavirus fraud coordinator, and Lauren Hummel are prosecuting the case.

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