Middlesex County Man Admits Stealing COVID-19 Unemployment Benefits
For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of New Jersey
NEWARK N.J. – A Middlesex County, New Jersey, man admitted that he conspired to illegally obtain over $400,000 in COVID-19 unemployment benefits, U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger announced today.
Christopher Valerio, 33, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, pleaded guilty on Nov. 16, 2023, before U.S. District Judge Robert Kirsch to an information charging him with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Valerio’s conspirator, Yanira Abreu, 42, of Keasby, New Jersey, pleaded guilty on Sept. 12, 2023, on charges stemming from the same scheme. A third conspirator, Jose Tavares, 35, of New York, is charged by complaint and his case remains pending.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:
From July 2020 through February 2021, Valerio, Abreu and others submitted false and fraudulent applications for unemployment insurance benefits to the New York Department of Labor (NYDOL) through fictitious online profiles that they created using personally identifiable information, including names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers, of other individuals without their consent. Once the NYDOL processed and approved the fraudulent applications, Valerio and his conspirators obtained debit cards with illegally obtained funds totaling $444,738, which they used for personal gain.
The wire fraud charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000, or twice the gross gain to the defendant or gross loss to the victim, whichever is greatest. Sentencing is scheduled for March 19, 2024.
U.S. Attorney Sellinger credited special agents of Homeland Security Investigations Newark, under the direction of Acting Special Agent in Charge Michael Alfonso; special agents of the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General, Northeast Region, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Jonathan Mellone, and postal inspectors of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in Newark, under the direction of Inspector in Charge Christopher A. Nielsen, Philadelphia Division, with the investigation leading to today’s guilty plea.
The District of New Jersey COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Strike Force is one of five strike forces established throughout the United States by the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute COVID-19 fraud. The strike forces focus on large-scale, multi-state pandemic relief fraud perpetrated by criminal organizations and transnational actors. The strike forces are interagency law enforcement efforts, using prosecutor-led and data analyst-driven teams designed to identify and bring to justice those who stole pandemic relief funds.
Anyone with information about allegations of attempted fraud involving COVID-19 can report it by calling the Department of Justice’s National Center for Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721 or via the NCDF Web Complaint Form at: https://www.justice.gov/disaster-fraud/ncdf-disaster-complaint-form.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Fatime Meka Cano of the Economic Crimes Unit in Newark.
The charges and allegations against Tavares are merely accusations, and Taveras is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
Updated November 17, 2023
Press Release Number: 23-339