The coronavirus pandemic was very, very hard on a lot of people, not just in terms of health risks and inconvenience but financially as well.
Businesses were forced to close. People lost jobs. It was a widespread economic catastrophe.
But not for 49-year-old East St. Louis resident Talfanita Cobb. The pandemic — allegedly, of course — presented her with a great economic opportunity that she exploited with relish until federal prosecutors put an abrupt end to her pandemic party.
Cobb is scheduled to be arraigned July 7 at the federal courthouse in East St. Louis. She faces charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with allegations that she “fraudulently obtained more than $800,000 in unemployment insurance benefits from three states” — Arizona, Texas and Ohio.
She is not alone. The Chicago Tribune reported this week that the Illinois Department of Employment Security paid out many, many millions of dollars in fraudulent claims.
In the Cobb case, U.S. Attorney Steven Weinhoeft said “some of the money allegedly came from federal pandemic unemployment compensation funds.”
“It is reprehensible that unscrupulous individuals would take advantage of these new programs to line their own pockets,” he said.
While it is “reprehensible” that some individuals are quick to take advantage of government programs designed to help those in need, it’s also completely unsurprising.
That’s particularly true if the programs are so loosely designed and sloppily administered that stealing government money is simply a matter of filing a false claim using stolen personal information.
News reports say states all across the country were targeted.
They assert that “fraudsters and cybercriminals are believed to have swindled upwards” of many hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in coronavirus aid funds.
As a result of the rampant criminality, the U.S. Justice Department has created what it calls a “coronavirus fraud task force” operating in all
50 states and U.S. territories.
The Cobb case is among the first prosecutions in Illinois by the task force.
Authorities suggested others will be charged along with Cobb.
In a media release, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged that “Cobb’s co-conspirators used stolen identities to apply for unemployment insurance benefits in Arizona, Ohio and Texas.”
One curiosity is that the states responded favorably to the false claims even though “each application allegedly
listed Cobb’s address in East St. Louis as the address of the applicant.”
A question arises — why would bureaucrats in the three states mentioned approve benefits to an applicant with an Illinois address?
The U.S. Attorney said “some of the funds” were deposited in a “bank account controlled by Cobb.” It also said the states mailed debit cards “to Cobb in East St. Louis” that were “in the names of the identity-
She then visited “various ATMs in the Metro East and withdrew funds from the cards.”
This is where the conspiracy takes on an aura of sophistication. Authorities alleged that Cobb is “accused of transferring some of the funds to a co-conspirator using Bitcoin” while retaining a “percentage of the money for herself.”